Now what is truly remarkable about this photograph? Well it shows a bunch of armed South African soldiers during World War 2 who by all accounts never carried a firearm and by directive were not allowed to either. These are members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), and it’s proof positive that there is no such thing as skin colour or ‘Segregation’ legislation when under fire.
This photograph was taken by Warren Loader’s Grandfather Noel Edgar Fuller while serving with The Royal Durban Light Infantry (DLI) B Coy in North Africa during WW2. What makes this photo remarkable is the DLI L/Cpl is standing next to three armed members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC).
So, visual proof that .303 Lee Enfields were issued to some members of the NMC, but what is the validity of this rare photograph?
During the Second World War the South African government of the day held out that members of the NMC could only function in non-combatant roles, and where not allowed to carry firearms whereas funnily members of the Cape Corps (Cape Coloured members) where fully armed and enrolled in combatant roles. In terms of the race politics of the day, on the arming of Black soldiers at the beginning of war, Smuts’ had to bow to the pressures of his opposition, the Nationalists, led by DF Malan.
The Nationalists were vociferously opposed to black South Africans in the army at all, even unarmed. As Dr D.F. Malan was to be quoted in Parliament: “To every Afrikaner, the use of black troops against Europeans is abhorrent.”
Faced with all this opposition in Parliament from the official opposition bench Smuts had little choice, he needed men to fight, and had to tap South Africa’s black population for resources. So he found a way by striking compromise, they could carry traditional weapons in the form of spears and knobkerries.
The president of the ANC in the war years, Dr AB Xuma, responded: “They are expected to fight aeroplanes, tanks and enemy artillery with knobkerries and assegais. What mockery.”
Arming the Native Military Corps with Spears
So, in a counter-intuitive move to the National Party’s objections and statements to the Smuts government, the Native Military Corps were trained then trained in traidional weapons (other than firearms) which they were allowed to carry. This was a long spear, and bear in mind spears are very deadly (as the British fighting at the Battle of Isaldwana found out) – but lets face it, spears were very out of date in the context of modern war, but they pressed on and in training the South African Native military corps even trained to charge with the spear, even through tear-gas screens.
Secretly arming the some Native Military Corps members with Firearms
All this political segregation and racial discrimination became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances serving Regiments, Units and Sections of the South African Army quite quickly issued firearms to their NMC ‘support’ members – and this photo of DLI members stands testament of such practice.
Thier lives – Black or White, depended on it, and logic prevailed. As is often the case in combat, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – in combat there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.
The caption written on Noel Edgar Fuller’s photo is “our Lance Corporal and his two native pals”. Quite a lot can be seen and said to this remarkable snapshot into the attitude of the time versus the attitude of soldiers.
Job Maseko MM
In addition to snapshots like Noel’s one, there are actual accounts of South African Native Military Corps getting into the fight at the Fall of Tobruk, and it produced one highly decorated South African from the SA NMC.
During the Fall of Tobruk, over 1200 NMC members found themselves in a frontal attack by Rommel and his Axis forces. Many of them were quickly issued rifles and ammunition and got into the fight alongside their white compatriots. Job Maseko was one and he ferried ammunition to the other NMC members who had been issued rifles and were in the thick of the fighting.
After the Fall of Tobruk (South Africa’s greatest capitulation of arms, Job found himself and other NMC members taken prisoner of war. Made of stern stuff, whilst been put to work by the Germans on the Tobruk dock loading and off-loading Axis suppliers, Job secretly created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite taken from bullets and an extremely long fuse. His intention, sink a ship!
Job placed his home-made bomb deep inside the bowels of a German freight ship (and “F” Boat) that was docked in the harbour at Tobruk. He skilfully placed it next to fuel barrels for maximum effect, lit the fuse and made good his escape. Had he been caught, as a Black POW, he would have certainly been put to death if not tortured first.
Job waited and later the ship shuddered from a huge internal explosion and sank almost immediately into the harbour.
He later escaped from Tobruk and walked, for three long weeks though the desert and through enemy lines, all the way to El Alamein, he intended joining the battle there as he had fixed an old German radio he had found which informed him about General Montgomery’s epic and tide turning battle at El Alamein. We still await the full historical account of this remarkable man as very little is known to this day, rest assured historians are now writing it.
Sergeant Petrus Dlamini
Now consider this remarkable first hand account of armed Native Military Corps soldiers in the thick of the fight at El-Alamein
The Germans ran away. Now we were having short magazine guns, we pushed them. They said we went 300 miles … (we were in the) 8th Army led by (British Field-Marshal Bernard). Montgomery. Those Germans never came back. We fought as one; black and white soldiers.” — Sergeant Petrus Dlamini speaking about the battle of El Alamein to filmmaker Vincent Moloi
After 1948 this history was held back from the ‘White’ population and to a very large degree from the ‘Black’ population for political expediency ,it is only been recounted now with the very few remaining NMC members. In effect South Africans were denied the opportunity to know their own history.
All that is starting to change now. From their recollections we know that, although black soldiers left South Africa armed only with spears, when they got “Up North” (to the North and East African campaigns) many were armed with rifles. We also know now some even fought alongside white soldiers in the thick of battle.
Sergeant Petrus Dlamini spoke of being at Sidi Rezegh, Mersa Matru, Tripoli, Garowe in then Abyssinia and El Alamein before he went by boat to Italy with the South African 1st Division. He remembered doing guard duty in North Africa.
He says: “There, at Garowe, we were guarding as a sentry. We were guarding with assegai.” But just a few months later, Dlamini adds: “It was said — I heard a rumour — that the superiors [commanding officers] of South Africa, England and Australia said we must be given guns. Those guns were taken from the Italians in Kenya. They gave them to us and we were taught how to put ammunition and we were training with guns”.
“Then we went to El Alamein and they took these [Italian] guns that were not right and they gave us short magazine Lee-Enfield .303. We got them at El Alamein.” The Lee-Enfield .303 short magazine was the standard rifle issued to all British and Commonwealth troops.
This has been verified in an article in the South African Historical Journal by historian LWF Grundling, who says: “Recruits received rifle musketry training, which was seriously handicapped by the defective Italian rifles with which they were issued.”
According to this research it was General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld himself who instructed the commanding officers in North Africa to arm black soldiers with Lee-Enfield rifles before El Alamein. No small player, General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was the Chief of General Staff (which today is known as Chief of the South African National Defence Force) and led the South African war effort in the Second World War.
But this does not seem to have been mentioned in despatches (possibly because of the petty race political ramifications back in South Africa of the Nationalists).
Sergeant Dlamini said: “In the front line we were accompanied by whites. When we go to fight the Germans we were mixed.”
He spoke vividly of the battles he was in. Moloi recorded his description of the battle of El Alamein.
“It was like bees, those German planes together with our planes, the Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force. Many died there. Shots were like falling rain. They would hit here and here where you are sitting. When you are sleeping in your trench you would hear sounds of bombs all the time, when you wake up you would see those injured and those who are dead.”
Dlamini says they were with the 8th Army. as they pushed the Afrika Korps and Axis forces out of Africa, he goes on “It [the 8th Army] pushed. Ai! Man! It was terrible, soldiers were lying dead, black and white, but the Germans were retreating and we kept following them. The Germans ran away. Now we were having short magazine guns. We pushed them. They said we went 300 miles … 8th Army led by Montgomery. Those Germans never came back. They went down together with the Italians you see.”
Dlamini added: “We were one. We fought as one; black and white soldiers. Here in South Africa (before we went up north) we were treated differently. Blacks were sleeping this side, whites on the other side. When we arrived in Egypt we mixed. If we made a queue, in front would be a white person, behind would be a black person then a white person. We were one.”
And, perhaps explaining why he had not spoken of his experiences before, he added: “You know the heart of a soldier. Your feelings die. You are always angry.”
Besides Moloi’s interviews with Dlamini, and with several other black World War II veterans, almost no records of the wartime experiences of black soldiers exist. And as it’s probably too late now to collect more, Moloi’s transcribed and translated interviews are a national treasure.
Lucas Majozi DCM
Adding to Job Maseko’s gallantry, another NMC man was to attain hero status during the Second World War was Lucas Majozi, a man who performed a feat very similar to Pvt. Desmond Doss (who has a movie ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ made over his gallantry and US ‘medal of honour’), and like Doss, as an unarmed medic Lucas time and again exposed himself and walked into the hell of machine gun fire as an unarmed medic to rescue a large number of critically injured ‘white’ South African soldiers on the battlefield during the Battle of El Alamein, so much so he became riddled with bullets himself and eventually collapsed.
This is South Africa’s own ‘hacksaw ridge’ and movies should be made of it, Lucas Majozi should be elevated to the highest accolades of gallantry we have to offer today. He remains the NMC with the highest decoration to this day – the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Politically inconvenient ‘Sacrifice’
It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published, lest national heroes be made of these ‘Black’ men. Simply put the ‘Black’ contributions to World War 1 and World War 2 were quite literally erased from the narrative of the war after 1948 and dismissed by the incoming Apartheid government as ‘traitors’ (a tag also suffered by their ‘White’ counterparts) for serving the ‘British’.
Bear in mind when reviewing what this actually means to the prevailing opinions by many South Africans of the war (White and Black) – approximately 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. Mull that over for a minute.
The sacrifice of the men of the Native Labour Corps no less significant – if you think that as ‘non combatants’ this corps came through unscathed by war, also think again – this is the honour role of those NMC members who laid down their lives during the war, their sacrifice is literally quite eye-opening:
In total approximately 1655 Native Military Corps members died during World War 2, read that again – One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Five ‘Black’ South African soldiers died during World War 2. That’s almost three times the number who died on the SS Mendi during World War 1, and that’s only from one ‘Corps’.
Put into context, nearly as many South Africans died during the entire 23 years of fighting during the Border War in the 70’s and 80’s when approximately 2013 South African service personnel died – from all arms of the military …. yet, here we are talking about only ‘one’ single Corps of Black South Africans and only five years of conflict. Consider that the book shelves on South African history are stuffed full of books on the Border War and not one single book is dedicated to the history of the South African Native Military Corps in World War 2. There is also almost nothing by way of definitive work on the unit history on the internet.
The history of the South African Native Military Corps needs to resurface – it’s screaming out for a proper definitive work and information access – this featured photograph alone calls for it. We need to fundamentally rethink who and what has been sacrificed to military conflict by South Africans of all ethnic origins, we need to completely re-dress how we honour them and we need to take some serious perspective
It must be noted that this policy of arming NMC was not a universal one and only seemed to have been actioned with certain members in front line units or when combat situations demanded it, in reality reason finally prevailed.
It also seems that once high intensity combat operations abated these rifles were handed back. For the most part many NMC members went through the war in non-combatant roles and unarmed in roles like supply truck drivers, medics, chefs, bomb loaders, engineering labour (rail and bridge-building) etc.
It is unfortunate that after the war, and when the Nationalists ascended to power in 1948, that the NMC was disbanded and history scrubbed. They were excluded from national parades and would sit under a tree and tell their stories to anyone prepared to listen. Their stories really becoming fable in the Black community only, any record of NMC using weapons was generally written out the state’s historical narrative, interviews with them disregarded and these priceless historical nuggets are only starting to re-surface now in a post Apartheid epoch.
The history of the South African Native Military Corps needs to resurface – it’s screaming out for more definitive works and information access – this featured photograph alone calls for it. We need to fundamentally rethink who and what has been sacrificed to military conflict by South Africans of all ethnic origins, we need to completely re-dress how we honour them and we need to take some serious perspective.
Related Work and Links:
Native Military Corps Dress and Bearing: Dress and Bearing of the South African Native Military Corps
Skin colour in combat; Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!
Native Military Corps honour roll; NMC Honour Roll, Delville Wood official website
Written by Peter Dickens. Image copyright of NMC members holding weapons to Warren Loader, used with his kind permission. Paintings of Job Maseko and Lucas Majozi by Neville Lewis copyright. Quotes obtained from ‘Memories of black South African soldiers who bore arms and fought in War II’ by Marilyn Honikman