When researching wartime memories of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women during World War 2, a couple of significant memories will stick out for them, the first time in combat, the loss of a friend or comrade, even where they were the day the war ended.
But more often than not only one iconic South African makes it into the distinctive personal memories of tens of thousands of British, South African and other commonwealth soldiers and sailors taking part in the war – and it’s not Jan Smuts, it’s a relatively little known soprano known only as the ‘Lady in White’.
The ‘lady in white’ in her day was a living legend, she had ‘sung’ her way into the hearts of thousands, but there is a very ‘unsung’ part of Perla Siedle Gibson’s legacy, and it includes her legacy as an anti-apartheid campaigner for democracy and political freedom in South Africa alongside Sailor Malan and his ‘Torch Commando’ – now not many people know that.
So who is this South African who is emblazoned on the narrative of World War 2 in a more memorable manner than just about any politician or military leader could ever hope for, who is this prima Anti-Apartheid campaigner and why is she not appropriately recognised as one of South Africa’s most significant women in our modern history?
Perla Gibson was a wartime national South African treasure – the famous ‘Lady in White’, Perla Gibson would sing to convoys of troopships, merchant ships and fighting vessels visiting Durban harbour during the Second World War – and her memory would sink into the hearts of servicemen and women the world over.
Perla Siedle Gibson was a South African soprano and artist, she was born in Durban in 1888 at the height of the Victorian era, the daughter of Otto Siedle, a prominent local shipping agent, businessman and musician of German extraction. Her two brothers Karl and Jack were well-known cricketers in South Africa. Karl was killed in the First World War and Jack went on to international fame as one of South Africa’s greatest test cricketers.
As a young woman in the early twentieth century she studied music and art in Europe and the United States and gave recitals in London for Granville Bantock (a British composer) and Henry Wood (a conductor) and gave a rectitude in New York before returning to Durban and raising a family.
By the start of the Second World War, she was 50 years old, with her performance life well behind her and considerable worry ahead of her, for she had reared a military family. Her husband, Air Sergeant Jack Gibson was in the South African Air Force; her two sons, and only daughter, were in the army.
A really ‘Big’ audience and a ‘Big’ heart
During World War 2 Durban was an extremely busy station for convoys of ships en route to the fronts in North Africa and the Far East. Of the tens of thousands of Allied men and women convoyed over vast distances at sea to these battlefronts most would often round the Cape of Good Hope and then work northeast along the coast to Durban as a final refreshing stop-over before finally reaching the ports servicing battle-fronts.
Durban would quickly become the busiest seaport on the South African coast and a way station on the ocean highway to the war. Through Durban came Commonwealth soldiers and airmen en route from New Zealand, Australia and training bases throughout South Africa and Rhodesia bound for Europe and points far to the east; American servicemen bound for the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Buna and Gona; wounded soldiers on hospital ships; British and American naval ships by the hundreds and thousands of battered merchantmen and not to mention tens of thousands of South African military service men and women off to and returning from war.
These were the stories of hundreds of thousands of men and women converging at some point on Durban and many would remember Durban as a place of not just bustling energy, but warmth and welcome. But one person in their Durban experience really shines above all else – a short, stout woman all dressed in white, standing on the edge of the pier holding a megaphone and singing her heart out.
As each convoy of Allied ships passed through the narrow Durban harbour entrance, there she was, standing alone on North Pier, singing a welcome to them in her rich soprano voice. From April 1940 to August 1945, whether in the early dawn, wind, rain or the blazing sun, she never missed one convoy. Not even the one that sailed out on the day when she learned that her eldest son had been killed in action.
So how did this type of conviction and devotion to duty come about?
When Irish Eyes are Smiling
Gibson’s custom arose in April 1940 when she was seeing off a young Irish merchant seaman her family had entertained the day before. As his ship was departing he was said to have called across the water asking her to sing something Irish, and Gibson responded with a rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” a song made popular around the time Perla was studying in Europe.
After this she decided to sing to every ship connected with the war which entered or left the harbour. In effect she became South Africa’s own ‘Vera Lyn’ – and in a twist she was even to meet and befriend Vera Lynn after the war.
Perla realised she could make a meaningful personal contrition to the war effort by boosting troop morale and it was the start of a ritual which she would continue doing as long as there were troopships to sing to.
From her small home on a hillside overlooking the harbour, she could see the daily comings and goings in the harbour—ships rounding the point, working up steam at the dock, or preparing to cast off. She would immediately get into her big Buick sedan and drive down the dockside. While security would not allow her to know in advance of ship movements, she was given a special entertainer pass that allowed her access to the secure docks. She took to wearing a sort of uniform—a plain white dress, a wide brimmed red hat and a red necklace. Whether this was a deliberate choice to allow sailors and servicemen to see her from far away as she sang them off, or was simply a wise choice to stay comfortable in hot African weather, we will never know. Soon however, her singing, her joyous personality and her great white and red presence earned her the admiration of everyone, worldwide fame and the title “The Lady in White.”
Never missing a beat
Perla Gibson would go on to sing to every ship that sailed into or out of Durban from April 1940 to August 1945. She went on to sing to more than 5,000 ships and a total of about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen. Clad in her distinctive white with a red hat and necklace, standng on a spot where ships entering and leaving the harbour pass quite close, and singing patriotic and sentimental songs through a megaphone – which came from a torpedoed ship, and which grateful British soldiers had given her so she could be heard with more ease.
As the crowded ships passed into the harbour, men lining the landward rails saw ‘the lady in white’ singing powerfully through the gifted megaphone such popular songs as “There’ll Always be an England!”,”Land of Hope and Glory”,“It’s a long way to Tippereray”, “Home, Sweet Home”, “When the Lights Go On Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”.
Soldiers’ talk led to the fame of the Lady in White spreading around the world. A British army newspaper called Parade, dated 3 March 1945, described Gibson as a highlight of troops’ visits to Durban.
Life Magazine in 1944 recorded a “52-year-old Perla Siedle is South Africa’s No. 1 dockside morale-builder. Yanks call her “Kate Smith” and “Ma”; Poles have named her the “South African Nightingale”; and to Britishers she is the “Soldier’s Sweetheart” and the “Lady in White.” The ship’s Captain “usually stands on the bridge and salute her as the ship glides by. Czechs and Poles aboard ship click their heels and stand at rigid attention”. When welcoming American troops Perla “would sing The Star Spangled Banner”.
Life Magazine goes further to record:
The Yanks never ask for hymns although the British sometimes do. Australians always want Waltzing Matilda. South Africans like their own Afrikaans folksongs like Sarie Marais. Czechs, Poles, Greeks and other Continentals prefer opera, so for them she does arias from Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. For hospital ships, Perla gives extra long performances.
It was not uncommon for troops on board a troop ship to goad Perla to sing more. “Hey Ma, sing us a song… Ma, come on, be a sport. Ma, give us Land of Hope and Glory Ma…” Perla was not perturbed, singing came easily and she would break into song. There would be a silence and then the troops joined in, their voices being heard above the hustle and bustle of wartime Durban.
For South Africans off to war she sang popular South African and Afrikaner songs, – like Bokkie and Sarie Marais. But her all time favourites were singing to the British servicemen the ‘Tommies’ Perla said of them “I adore British Tommies. They make you sing and sing and never let you stop. I once sang six hours at a stretch for them.”
Consider her impact from this memoir by a Merchant Seaman Gordon Sollors:
“The next thing I observed was one of those enduring memories, which we all have. As we sailed (majestically I thought) into the harbour, I had a vague idea that “something was happening” on the quayside. When I finally looked down and took notice of what was going on, I could see a person standing there, holding what appeared to be a megaphone (no such thing as loud hailers then!) The person was a “large” lady, dressed in a long, flowing white dress, and wearing an ENORMOUS wide brimmed red hat. Although she looked quite out of place among all the cranes, railway trucks, and all the other things that generally litter a quayside, she looked absolutely stunning.
She stood on the dock side calling “Hello there” through the megaphone to the soldiers as the ship came nearer to the quay. Once the soldiers heard her, and called back, she started singing the “patriotic” music hall type songs popular in those days such as Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, Pack Up Your Troubles and Bless ’em All.
She did all this in a superb voice through her megaphone. Had there been a roof, I’m sure she would have brought it down as the soldiers enthusiastically joined in. Not only was it a diversion from the very boring day to day life of the last four or five weeks on board the ship, it was somebody going out of her way to entertain them. There was also a nostalgic touch of “Old England” in the content of the songs. Such a performance would never have taken place in England, not only because of the secrecy, which necessarily shrouded troop movements there, but also because in general, the public was absolutely barred from dockside areas. It was a very moving occasion indeed”.
R.H. Nicklin recounts in his book ‘Civilian to Sailor’ the importance of ‘The Lady in White’:
The thing that makes Durban stand out above all other places, and the thing that will always be remembered by me and every sailor that enters this harbour is “The Lady in White” and why? As Dorsetshire sailed into the harbour for the first time though the entrance I could see people standing on the jetty, but what stood out from all these people is a figure standing on something higher than the rest and dressed all in white. As we closed into our berth on the jetty I could see distinctly that the figure is that of a woman and she could be plainly heard singing through a microphone [sic] loud and clear “Land of Hope and Glory.” I can tell you that there wasn’t many sailors who didn’t have a tear in their eyes or a lump in their throat” … “I know one thing she certainly gave my moral a boost and I only hope that I hear her a lot more times…”
Perla would never miss a beat she would even sing her husband, two sons and daughter off to the war from the harbour. When she got a telegram that her 26-year-old son Second Lieutenant Clement Roy Gibson was killed on 14 March 1944 while serving with the Black Watch, she put away the telegram and drove to the harbour and sang to the departing ships, such was her devotion to duty and emotional strength.
An unsung icon of Liberty
Perla’s strength, her sense of ‘duty’ and ‘conviction’ did not stop after the war either. A little known part of Perla Gibson history is that she even took an active stand against the National Party’s plans to implement their policies of Apartheid after 1948.
In the early 1950’s she backed the returning war veterans’ mass protests against Apartheid. As a high profile and recognisable personality of the war, Perla Gibson was standing shoulder to shoulder with Sailor Malan and participating and singing in Torch Commando rallies in defiance of the National Party and Apartheid.
She was present next to Sailor Malan during the Torch Commando anti-apartheid rally in Cape Town during March 1952 in front of 10,000 South African World War 2 veterans and 50,000 civilians on protest, it was at this rally when Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government of;
“Depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.
Not afraid of the dangers which came with her political convictions, during the Cape Town “Torch” veterans carrying oil lit ‘torches’ of ‘liberty’ moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen. As tensions grew over the protest the National Party MP Johannes Streydom finally warned them that he would use the South African security forces against “those who are playing with fire and speaking of civil war and rebellion”.
DF Malan’s Apartheid government was so alarmed by the activities and broad-based support of The Torch Commando they acted as was their custom – decisively and crushed the movement with both legislation and direct threats to veterans livelihoods, whilst at the same time painting people like Sailor Malan and his supporters like Perla Gibson as ‘traitors’ because of their wartime support for Great Britain and their ‘unpatriotic’ stance to Apartheid.
The Torch Commando, South Africa’s first mass mobilisation protest movement against Apartheid (not the ANC) was eventually very effectively buried in an unrelenting smear campaign. It was written completely out of South Africa’s school history books and national consciousness by a Nationalist government fearful of heroes been made out iconic military veterans in countenance to their grand plans of Apartheid. As a result ‘The Torch’ remains obscure and even inconvenient to the current narrative of the ‘Apartheid Struggle’ as it was primarily a ‘white’ movement and not a ‘black’ one.
A legacy to be remembered
The National Party’s opinion aside, Perla Gibson’s value was sincerely felt by Allied and South African servicemen and women both in South Africa and the world over. Perla Gibson sang at the quayside at Maydon Wharf for the very last time to a departing ship in February 1971. Very fittingly that ship was a British frigate with a South African legacy – the HMS Zulu. Her very last song, ‘wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’. She passed away just a week later on 6 March 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday.
To the Memory of Perla Gibson “The Lady in White” who sang to countless thousands of British Commonwealth and Allied Servicemen as they passed through Durban over the years 1940 to 1971. This tablet was presented by the Officers and Men of the Royal Navy.
When the North Pier was redeveloped the plaque and plinth was moved. In 1995 a statue to Perla was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II, it was commissioned in 1995 by Sam Morley who wrote the book “Durban’s Lady in White“. The statue was created by local artist Barbara Siedle, who is the niece of the ‘Perla Siedle Gbson, and it was originally placed in a prominent place next to the Emtateni Centre (which was part of the Ocean Terminal Building on the T-Jetty). In June 2016 it was announced that the statue would be relocated to the Port Natal Maritime Museum as it was no longer accessible due to changes in the Ocean Terminal. The statue was relocated next to the Britannia Room, but still within the harbour area.
The Perla Siedle Gibson Mobile Library was also founded to serve British seamen on all ship and a 5 room unit at the Highway Hospice was created with funds raised in her memory. The boarding establishment at Glenwood High School was named Gibson House after Roy and its colour is white in her honour.
The memory of Perla Siedle Gibson left an indelible mark on those servicemen who experienced her performance, and her dedication to her task was legendary, However her legacy is largely fading into memory in South Africa as greater socio-political events have gripped the country since the implementation of Apartheid, and the Nobel deeds of South African’s who went to war during World War 2 fall to the wayside and out of the national consciousness.
A real pity, considering Perla Gibson is one of South Africa’s most predominant women from our history, arguably one of the most well-known artists we have ever produced, and she is both a ‘wartime’ icon and even a ‘struggle’ icon. She is at the moment a very ‘unsung’ heroine of liberty.
However, the nature of modern media as to what it is, the truth will eventually ‘out’ – especially when it comes to our WW2 heroes and heroines like Sailor Malan and Perla Gibson, sons and daughters of South Africa who not only stood against tyranny of Nazism but also stood against the injustices of Apartheid.
Related Works and Links
Vera Lynn and Perla Gibson The Forces Sweetheart & The Lady in White, two iconic women of WW2
Sailor Malan Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!
SA Naval Sacrifice WW2 The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
Information sources – Wikipedia Durban’s Lady in White: Perla Siedle Gibson by Durban Local History Museums, 30By Dave O’Malley. Gibson, P.S., The Lady in White, Purnell & Sons, 1964. Durban’s Lady in White. An autobiography. Perla Siedle Gibson. Aedificamus Press, 1991. Photos Richard Mallory Allnutt Collection and Wikipedia. Dockside Diva by John Barkham — First published in LIFE magazine in 1944. Sailor Malan’s Revolt’ in Cape Town a war hero speaks up for freedom – LIFE magazine 25 June 1951.