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).
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.
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 stands evidence 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 – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.
The caption written on this 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.
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 (approximately 2013 died) – from all arms of the military, yet the here we are talking about only one single Corps of South Africans. 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 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.
Written by Capt. Peter Dickens (Retired)