Delville Wood’s ‘Weeping Cross’

crossThere is a poignant and very mystical annual occurrence in South Africa that reminds us every year of the blood sacrifice of South Africans during The Battle of Delville Wood. Every year, in July on the anniversary of the battle itself, a cross made from wood recovered from the shattered tress of the battlefield inexplicably ‘weeps blood’

In Pietermaritzburg there is Christian cross that becomes tacky with red resin just a few days before the anniversary of the massacre of thousands of South African soldiers at the Battle of Delville Wood during the Somme offensive of 1916.

The ‘weeping’ cross has wept these resin “tears” almost every single year, and this phenomenon only coincides with the anniversary of the bloody battle that started it in the first place on July 14, 1916.

The Legend

At the end of World War 1, on return to South Africa, the Commanding officer of the South African Infantry Brigade in France, General Lukin brought back some timber cut from surviving Pinus Sylvester Pine tree (Scots pine) which had grown in abundance at the Delville Wood battleground before much of it was shattered and razed. This wood was to be used to make three crosses to serve as war memorials located in Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town and Durban to commemorate the Battle of Delville Wood (other Christian crosses commemorating the battle are also found in Pretoria at the Union Buildings and Johannesburg and St John’s High School). The ‘Pietermaritzburg’ cross is the only one on the three crosses that “weeps” and this phenomenon has baffled experts for years.

The sticky red resin makes its usual annual appearance from a crack near the inscription and knots in the wood on both sides of the crossbar, and over 100 years after the battle, scientists still find it difficult to come up with explanations for the leaking resin.

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Known as the “Weeping Cross of Delville”, this cross became a sensation in Natal over many years.  The weeping of ‘blood’ came to symbolise the tremendous bloodletting of World War 1 and the Battle of Delville Wood.  A legend developed, with people believing that the wood ‘weeps for all the lost soldiers.’   For many years folklore and legend also stated that it would weep until the last survivor of Delville Wood answered the ‘Sunset Call’; however when the last survivor died some years back the cross continued to weep ‘blood’.

The legacy

In the opening weeks of the Somme Offensive in July 1916.  On the 14th July 1916 the South African Infantry on the Somme were ordered to protect British troops who had just taken the village of Langueval and hold the adjacent wood about a square mile in size (dubbed ‘devils wood’), and hold it against German attack “at all costs”.

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 only six days later on the 20th July 1916. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood   when the endless barrages of German artillery file abated – artillery fire rained down on the South African positions at 500 shells/minute razing the wood to just shattered tree stumps (in fact only one original tree survives to this day) – 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.

Of the dead and missing, only 142 were given a proper burial and only 77 of those were able to be identified.  Most the dead still lie unmarked and unidentified in the wood to this day, exactly where they fell, it is this that makes a visit to Delville wood such a solemn and heart-breaking experience.

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Major-General Sir H T Lukin, commanding 5th Division, presenting decorations at the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.

Pietermaritzburg’s cross originally stood at the intersection of Durban and Alexandra Roads but was seen to be a traffic hazard and was moved to the Natal Carbineers Garden. In July 1956 it was moved to the MOTH Remembrance Garden in Pietermaritzburg, where it has been ever since.  The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) ‘Allan Wilson’ shell-hole oversees its good keeping in conjunction with The South African Legion’s Pietermaritzburg branch.

 

In terms of the two other Delville Wood crosses, one is located at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the other is located at The Castle in Cape Town, as said – neither of them “weep”.

Some explanations 

Some explanations have been offered for the mysterious ‘weeping’ of the Pietermaritzburg Delville Wood Cross, Chemists who analysed samples of the substance in the past found traces of lower linseed oil fragments and pine resin. This was expected as the carpenter, William Olive, soaked the cross in linseed oil before he worked on it. However, the phenomenon baffles forestry experts as it is unusual for wood to continue producing resin for such a long time – especially considering it has now been doing this for over 100 years.

What adds significantly to the mystery of the weeping cross is that Pietermaritzburg’s cross is the only one of the three that weeps at this exact time every year.

Also adding to the mystery is the fact that existing Pine trees in France ooze this resin during the heat of summer, while the cross situated in Pietermaritzburg does so only in winter and specifically over the period of the anniversary of the Delville Wood battle.

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“Devil’s Trench” in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield photographed on 3 July 1917, a year after the fighting.

One suggestion offers the opposite to the ‘expansion’ only experienced by the Pine in France in summer-time and puts forward that is the dry, cold weather experienced around Pietermaritzburg in winter-time, which would cause the wood to shrink and hence forces the resin out.

However, all these suggestions aside, experts like Dr Ashley Nicholas from the school of Biology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville campus have maintained that it still remains an absolute scientific mystery and all theories put forward to date are sheer guess-work.  His position has also been backed up by the Forestry Department’s scientific research council who maintain that no one has yet been able to provide concrete insight into it.

In Conclusion

As long as the legend of the weeping cross continues, it will continue to keep us mindful of the sacrifice at Delville Wood, and the forge it stamped on our young nation’s identity as a ‘South African’ one in 1916.  When it will stop nobody knows, and here is where the cross’ current caretakers i.e. the war veterans in the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) are possibly right – perhaps it will only stop ‘weeping’ when true peace is found and all wars end.

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Chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg branch of the SA Legion  Peter Willson (right) and vice chairperson Dean Arnold view the refurbished Garden of Remembrance that houses the Delville Wood weeping cross.

Related links and work

Springbok Valour – Battle of Delville Wood Centenary ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

In Flanders Fields (Afrikaans) ‘In Flanders Fields’ translated into Afrikaans for the Somme 100 commemoration, July 2016

William Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

A Diary from Delville Wood A South African soldier’s diary captures the horror of Delville Wood

Mascots at Delville Wood: Nancy the Springbok Nancy the Springbok

Mascots at Delville Wood: Jackie the Baboon Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One

The Battle of Delville Wood 500 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Reference Maritzburg Sun, The Witness – Kwa Zulu Natal.  Image copyrights – The Witness and The Imperial War Museum.

Forgotten history – South Africa at its humanitarian best – the ‘Berlin Airlift’

Currently the 70th anniversary of The Berlin Airlift is in full swing, but did you know that as South Africans we can also hold our collective heads high, having played a key role in saving the civilians of war-torn Berlin from starvation and death after the Communist ‘Iron-Curtain’ descended?

For those unaware of what The Berlin Air Lift was, and why it was so important as the saviour of West Berlin’s civilians from certain starvation and death, and even how South Africa played a role of in averting this humanitarian crisis, here’s a quick overview.

Background to the ‘Berlin Air Lift’

After the Second World War ended in 1945, Germany was divided into control zones by the victorious Allied armies so as to prevent Germany from ever re-starting another world war, however, the very act of dividing Germany did start another world war, this time “The Cold War” – and this ideological and economic war to be fought between ‘Eastern’ Communism and ‘Western’ Capitalist Democracy.

The Cold War is misunderstood to many today, as they see it as an ideological one and not a deadly one, a ‘war’ as such was never declared – and by the time the millennium came around the new generation could not understand why such a big deal was made of it.

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However truth be told  – The Cold War was very deadly and was to be fought in proxy wars all over the planet, and it resulted in the greatest stand-off of mutually assured  nuclear annihilation ever seen – with zero dialogue or even a simple telephone line between the main belligerents – Russia (and it’s bloc Allies) one the one side and the United States of America (and its bloc Allies) on the other.  The epicentre of the ‘Cold War’ began with the act of the Berlin blockade in 1948 and subsequent Airlift, and the very first casualties of the Cold War in terms of sacrifice of members of statute forces – also began with the Berlin Airlift.

So what’s with the divide?

Simple put, at the conference on the 5th February 1945 towards the end of World War 2 between the ‘Big Three’ (The US, UK and Russia) at Yalta, Stalin made it clear to America and Britain that Russia was never to exposed to an attack from ‘the west’ again, they had endured the French when Napoleon invaded Russia and then endured the Germans when Hitler invaded Russia, with a massive bloodletting.  In fact Russian bloodletting and sacrifice in World War 2 exceeds the British & Commonwealth, the French and American bloodletting all combined.  Simply put, Stalin wanted a ‘buffer’ between Russia and Europe and everything East of Germany would become a satellite communist state to provide exactly that – with Moscow calling the shots.

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The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

With that the independent Parliaments, Kingdoms and Democracies of ‘liberated’ small states like Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Poland all but disappeared into a block of ‘puppet’ Communist satellite states.

In dividing up Germany to manage it post war, the ‘Western’ coalition of British, French and American Zones effectively made up what was to become ‘West Germany’ and the ‘Eastern’ Russian coalition zone (the Soviet Union) made up what was to eventually become ‘East Germany’.  The capital of Germany – Berlin, was strategically important to Germany itself and although it was located well inside the ‘Soviet’ bloc it also needed to be divided into ‘West’ and ‘East’ in a similar way.

So Berlin itself had a Western sector which was divided into control zones by the Western allies – The United Kingdom, France and the United States of America, and an Eastern sector which was controlled by the Russian coalition the USSR – The Soviet Union.  As Berlin was 100 miles into ‘Communist’ territory it was fed by a secured road and rail corridor which stretched from West Germany well into East Germany.

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Berlin’s zones as defined after the end of WW2

Berlin, with its ‘western sectors’ was a ‘blot’ in the middle of Stalin’s ‘buffer’, it undermined his complete communist barrier splitting Europe in half (a barrier Churchill tagged very aptly as ‘The Iron Curtain’). Berlin was an island of Capitalism in the middle of a sea of Communism, a beacon of Western democracy contrasting to the ideals of socialist conformity – it simply had to go.

The ‘Trigger’

In June 1948, Britain, France and America united their zones into a new country, West Germany. On 23 June 1948, they introduced a new currency – the Deutschmark, which they said would help trade and aid West Germany’s war debt repayments by pulling it out of recession and the ‘cigarette economy’ it was in.

The Soviets, however, hoping to continue the German recession, refused to accept the new currency, in favor of the over-circulated Soviet Reichsmark. By doing so, the Soviets believed they could foster a communist uprising in postwar Germany through civil unrest. By March 1948 it was evident that no agreements could be reached on a unified currency or quadripartite control of Germany. Both sides waited for the other to make a move.

 

The Soviets, trying to push the west out of Berlin, countered this move by requiring that all Western convoys bound for Berlin travelling through Soviet Germany be searched. The “Trizone” government (Britain, France and the USA), recognising the threat, refused the right of the Soviets to search their cargo. The Soviets then cut all surface traffic to West Berlin on June 27. American ambassador to Britain, John Winnant, stated the accepted Western view when he said that he believed “that the right to be in Berlin carried with it the right of access.” The Soviets, however, did not agree. Shipments by rail and the autobahn came to a halt. A desperate Berlin, faced with starvation and in need of vital supplies, looked to the West for help.

The Soviet Union’s unprecedented move to prevent the introduction of the new currency and cut off East Germany from West Germany by way of a blockade – was the ‘trigger’ and less so the ’cause’, the much-anticipated Soviet Communist ‘Iron Curtain’ finally fell dividing the whole Europe.

As Berlin sat in East Germany, the blockade isolated the western half of the city from supply of vital coal and fuel (for heating and transport) and food. The Western Allies saw this blockade as an aggressive and ‘illegal’ Soviet move to absorb West Berlin into the Soviet Union, and the precursor to starting a 3rd World War with the Western Allies (the Cold War had begun in effect).

The Plan 

The restrictions prevented the supply of food and materials by road from the British, American and French occupation zones in West Germany to their zones in West Berlin. So the Western Allies overcame the problem by creating an air bridge instead and came up with a very ambitious plan to ferry in supplies using transport aircraft – the air-space over East Germany to Berlin was not contested, and the Allies gambled that the Soviet Union would not make the error of initiating an act of war against the West by shooting one down.

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British and American air force officers consult an operations plan giving routes and heights of all aircraft in and out of the Berlin area during the Airlift.

An airlift on this scale had never been attempted before (and has never been achieved again).  It required military transport aircraft to fly into Berlin round the clock for weeks on end, until the Soviet resolve was broken.  It was also critical, the city of Berlin had been destroyed during the Second World War, many of its citizens living hand to mouth.

Logistics 

Nothing short of a logistics miracle to heat and feed West Berlin by air and during the around-the-clock airlift (in the end some 277,000 flights were made), many at 3 minute intervals, flying in an average of 5,000 tons of food and fuel each day.

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Air corridor map to Berlin from the Western Allied controlled part of Germany to the Berlin in the Soviet controlled part of Germany.

The American military government, based on a minimum daily ration of 1,990 kilocalories (July 1948), a total of daily supplies needed at 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese. In all, 1,534 tons were required each day to sustain the over two million people of Berlin. Additionally, for heat and power, 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and petrol were also required daily.

To complete the task the Western Allied Command turned to the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) for the ‘British’ contribution, the French Air Force (FAR) for the ‘French’ contribution and the United States Air Force (USAF) for the American contribution.

This would be the greatest humanitarian mission ever implemented, and South African pilots, navigators and other air-crew were right at the centre of it.

The Airlift

Operations began on 24 June 1948. The order to begin supplying West Berlin by air was approved by U.S. General Lucius Clay on June 27 with USAF AC-47s lifting off for Berlin hauling 80 tons of cargo, including milk, flour, and medicine. When the blockade first started, the city of Berlin had around 36 days worth of food.

The first British aircraft flew on 28 June 1948. At that time, the airlift was expected to last three weeks.  Nothing would be further from the  truth, the Airlift was to progress through a very cold winter to come.

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Short Sunderland GR Mark 5 of No 201 Squadron, Royal Air Force, moored on Lake Havel in Berlin, Germany. Lake Havel was used by Coastal Command Sunderlands from July until mid-December 1948, when the threat of winter ice suspended further use.

President Truman, wishing to avoid war or a humiliating retreat, continually supported the air campaign. Surviving the normally harsh German winter, the airlift carried over two million tons of supplies in 277,000 flights, and would continue well into the new year, only to finally officially end in September 1949.

To keep the aircraft coming in at the rate of supply needed, fast turnaround was expected on the ground in Berlin.  Pilots and crews generally did not leave their aircraft and were provided with snacks and meals. The German civilian population got into ensuring the airlift was a success and to make up for shortages in manpower. Crews unloading and making airfield repairs at the Berlin airports were made up of almost entirely by local civilians, who were given additional rations in return for their assistance.

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USAF Dakota transport with a cargo of flour during the Berlin Airlift

As the crews experience increased, the times for unloading continued to fall, with a record set for the unloading of an entire 10-ton shipment of coal from a C-54 in ten minutes, later beaten when a twelve-man crew unloaded the same quantity in five minutes and 45 seconds.

The Candy Bombers

At the very beginning of the air-lift Gail Halvorsen, and American pilot arrived at Tempelhof on 17 July 1948 on one of the C-54s and walked over to a crowd of children who had gathered at the end of the runway to watch the aircraft and handed out his only two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum to the children.

The children quickly divided up the pieces as best they could, even passing around the wrapper for others to smell. He was so impressed by their gratitude and that they didn’t fight over them, that he promised the next time he returned he would drop off more. Before he left them, a child asked him how they would know it was him flying over. He replied, “I’ll wiggle my wings.”

The next day on his approach to Berlin, he rocked the aircraft and dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below. Every day after that, the number of children increased and he made several more drops. Soon, there was a stack of mail in Base Ops addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings”, “The Chocolate Uncle” and “The Chocolate Flier”.

The Allied Command was so impressed by this gesture of goodwill and its ‘public relations’ value that the mission was expanded into “Operation Little Vittles”.  Up to this point the children of Berlin only knew that American and British aircraft brought bombs, fire, death and destruction.  Now, in a pure expression of humanity the aircraft would bring happiness to children in what was to them a break and traumatized time, the Western Allies would now drop candy instead of bombs.

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Children of Berlin wave to a ‘Candy Bomber’ to get the attention of the air crew.

The other air-lift pilots joined in, and when news reached the United States, children all over the country sent in their own candy to help out. Soon, major candy manufacturers joined in. In the end, over twenty-three tons of candy were dropped on Berlin the “operation” became a major propaganda success. German children christened the candy-dropping aircraft “raisin bombers”.

On December 20, 1948 “Operation Santa Claus” was also flown from Fassberg, with gifts for 10,000 children.

Sacrifice 

The airlift was not without its hazards, with that many aircraft on that type of complex operation flying in all sorts of conditions – instrument and visual, and weather, so there we bound to be accidents.

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There were 101 fatalities recorded during the Airlift. The number includes 40 British and Commonwealth air-crew and 31 American air-crew. The majority died as a result of accidents resulting from hazardous weather conditions or mechanical failures. The remainder is composed of civilians who perished on the ground while providing support for the operation or who lost their lives when aircraft accidents destroyed their homes. As aircraft losses go 17 American and 8 British aircraft crashed during the Berlin Airlift.

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In honor of the pilots and aircrews who were lost the Berlin Airlift Monument was created from a fund established by the former Federal Republic of Germany and private donations. It was dedicated in 1951. All together there are three matching monuments: at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, at Wietzenbruch near the former British airbase Celle, and at the Luftbruckenplatz (Airbridge Place) Berlin-Tempelhof airfield. The base of the monument at Tempelhof reads, “They gave their lives for the freedom of Berlin in service for the Berlin Airlift 1984/1949.” The location at Tempelhof is presently being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

South African service personnel in the airlift

The full list of South African pilots and aircrew is hard to come by as the commitment of South Africans in the Berlin Airlift is not generally part of the South African national consciousness anymore – whereas in countries like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada it is.

On the 27th September 1948, Union government of South Africa committed 50 South African Air Force (SAAF) crew to the Berlin Airlift, in all the SAAF would provide two contingents of air-crew to the air-lift, most seconded to RAF Transport Command and even one SAAF registered C-47A Dakota transport aircraft (No. 6841) made its way to Berlin to be put into service.

South Africans known to us at the moment who took part in the Berlin Airlift include Steve Stevens, who participated in WW2 as a SAAF Beaufighter pilot, Albie Gotze who participated in WW2 as a seconded SAAF pilot in RAF Typhoons and Spitfires.  Joe Hurst, John Clifford Bolitho, Duncan Ralston, Jenks Jenkins, Pat Clulow, Tom Condon, Johnnie Eloff, Mickey Lamb, “Shadow” Atkinson, Jannie Blaauw, Piet Gotze, Wilhelm Steytler, Vic de Villiers, Mike Pretorius, Nic Nicholas, Jack Davis,  Dormie Barlow, Tienie van der Kaay ‘Porky’ Rich, Ian Bergh (flying Sunderlands in the RAF) are all South African and SAAF pilots and air-crew recorded as taking part.

In addition SAAF pilot Joe Joubert also took part and was even commemorated for his actions during the Berlin Airlift.  Joe Joubert flew as a navigator in the Berlin Airlift and on the 9th July 1949 he and the radio operator were ordered to jettison 63 sacks of coal as the aircraft could not gain height in a severe thunderstorm. This was achieved in a remarkable six and a half minutes and he received a commendation for this remarkable act. This act was certainly helped by the fact that in his spare time Joe practiced weight lifting.

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Joe Joubert (right) – a SAAF pilot in the Berlin Airlift to earn a special commendation

Flt Officer Kenneth Reeves is South Africa’s only casualty during the Berlin Airlift, and he symbolises the greatest sacrifice we as a nation can give.   Kenneth was a navigator on board a RAF CD-3 (Dakota) which crashed in the Soviet Zone near Lübeck, killing all the crew.

Light at the end of the tunnel

By the spring of 1949, the airlift was clearly succeeding, and by April it was delivering more cargo than had previously been transported into the city by rail. On 12 May 1949, the Soviet Union finally realised the futility of the road and rail blockade of West Berlin and lifted it, however tensions remained.

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Air crew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) enjoy an off-duty drink in the officers’ bar at RAF Lubeck. IWM Copyright.

The airlift however continued until 30th September 1949, at a total cost of $224 million and after delivery of 2,323,738 tons of food, fuel, machinery, and other supplies. The end to the blockade was brought about because of countermeasures imposed by the Allies on the Soviet blockade by way of the airlift and because of a subsequent Western embargo placed on all strategic exports from the Eastern bloc. As a result of the blockade and airlift, Berlin became a symbol of the Allies’ willingness to oppose further Soviet expansion in Europe.

In conclusion

There can be little doubt that the Airlift was a success on many levels. It saved millions of lives and preserved the freedom of the city of Berlin. Veterans’ groups world over still celebrate the victory by gathering around the bases of the monuments and laying wreathes and flowers in memorial for those who paid the ultimate cost.  This act of remembrance made even more important on the 70th Anniversary.

However little recognition is given to the Berlin Airlift in South Africa, These are truly “unsung” heroes of South Africa we can be very proud of and not to be forgotten. The South Africans who took part in the Berlin Airlift are icons in Germany, and hardly known in South Africa, such is the strange politics we as South Africans tend to weave.

The Berlin Airlift marks South Africa’s first sacrifice in the ‘Cold War’ – further sacrifice was to come in the other future ‘Cold War’ proxy wars  – fought by South African statute forces against Soviet Allies in Korea, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique.

To many of the South African air-crew and SAAF members who took part in this momentous period in world history, the saving of a city from near starvation, the Capital City of a former enemy now vanquished by the war, with this act of sheer human philanthropy and benevolence was to really end South Africa’s “war” on a very humane high.

We leave the Cold War where it started and in one fitting epitaph the last British pilot to leave Berlin had chalked on the side of his aircraft the words, “Positively the last flight…Psalm 21, Verse 11” That psalm reads:

If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.”

Related links and work

Jan Smuts Barracks Berlin Smuts Barracks; Berlin


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

Source The South African Air Force Museum.  The Imperial War Museum.  Image copyrights (see watermark) – Imperial War Museum.

An ‘unsung’ icon of Liberty … the ‘Lady in White’

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.

Perla-Siedle-GibsonBut 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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Two famed women for singing to troops on quaysides. Dame Vera Lynn (known to the troops as “The Forces Sweetheart”) on the left and Perla Siedle Gibson (Known to the troops as “The Lady In White”) on the right whilst Vera Lynn was on tour in South Africa in the 1950’s.

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.

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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”.

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Two wonderful photos by an unknown photographer show Perla standing next to a bollard and singing

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.

13450028_10154250644792329_4746410985414422490_nAn 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.

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Torch Commando rally in Caps Town. Protestors carrying thousands of oil soaked ‘torches’ of Liberty in defiance of 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”.

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Rare photograph of Perla Gibson accompanying Sailor Malan and speaking out at a Torch Commando rally in March 1952, Cape Town – Image LIFE magazine

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.

A year later a bronze plaque donated by men of the Royal Navy was erected to her memory on Durban’s North Pier on the spot where she used to sing.  It read: Royal Navy Memorial

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.

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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.

In Conclusion

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.

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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!

Torch Commando The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

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, 30 January 2017 By 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.

Shooting down enemy FW 190 at “point blank range” – SAAF hero; Albert Sachs

Here is a another fantastic colourised photograph of a South African WW2 hero with an extraordinary tale of heroism. Lieutenant Albert Sachs – a member of the South African Air Force (SAAF) who was seconded to No. 92 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.  Here he is seen sitting on his Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII at Canne in Italy.

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This very heroic South African, known as ‘Bertie’ to his friends is best explained in his own Sortie Reports and Squadron Reports:

30 November 1943

‘I was flying Yellow 3. At 0935 I saw 10+ 109s and 190s which we had been warned of by Control, bombing along the secondary road parallel with the Sangro River towards the River mouth.

I dived on them and as I approached they turned and began straffing the road towards the mountains. I closed in on a 190 and fired several bursts from quarter astern and astern from 250 – 50 yds. He dived N.W. along the side of the mountain and after seeing strikes on the cockpit I saw the A/C (aircraft) half roll and it crashed in the vicinity of H.1898.

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German FW 190

I then broke slightly up as a Warhawk was on the (Me) 190s No 2s tail. The Warhawk fired several shots none of which hit the E/A. He then broke up and I closed in on the 190 and fired a burst at quarter astern from 100 yds. getting strikes on the wing roots, as I was firing the Warhawk flew through my sights so I broke away and then lost sight of the 190. I then rejoined the Patrol.

I claim One F.W 190 destroyed. One F.W 190 damaged.’

Editors Note: the Warhawk referred to here is another Allied aircraft – the Curtiss P-40 – see below, the variants flown by the RAF and Commonwealth forces knew it as a ‘Kittyhawk’ (some variants also became knows as ‘Tomahawks’), the United States Air Force and other US armed forces called it a ‘Warhawk’ – see below.

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American Curtiss P40 Warhawk

5 December 1943

On the 5th of December 1943 Lt. Albert Sachs scored the 99th and 100th victories for his Squadron when he shot down two Focke Wulf Fw 190s near Pescara, before colliding with a third Fw 190 and being forced to bale out.

The Officer Record Brief entry for 92 Squadron provides the following, detailed insight into this engagement:

‘Lt. Sachs destroyed two FW 190s and probably destroyed another. His story is an epic. He positioned himself behind the twelve-plus fighter-bombers while two others attacked the fighter cover. After destroying an FW 190 with a one-second burst, Lt. Sachs saw another on the tail of a Spitfire, so he turned into it, firing a 30-degree deflection shot, then fired again from point-blank range astern.

The aircraft blew up, and portions hit Sachs’ windscreen, smashing it, while another large piece struck his starboard wing.

FW 190s were then diving on him from both sides and one shell exploded on his tail plane, blowing off his starboard elevator. He turned toward another FW 190 which as attacking him at point-blank range on his port side, and felt a jar as he collided with it. The enemy aircraft dived away out of control minus its fin and rudder.

The attack continued and finally, after his elevator and aileron control were useless, Lt. Sachs was forced to bail out. He landed safely in his own lines within 60 yards of the wreckage of his Spitfire.’

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Royal Air Force Spitfire Mk VIII

He was discovered by ‘friendly’ Italians and was able to return to his Squadron to fight another day.  After a period as a flying instructor in the United Kingdom, Sachs, now a Major, returned to Italy to command No. 93 Squadron RAF from September 1944 to February 1945.

In September 1944 No.93 Squadron was moved from operations covering the D-Day (Operation Overlord) forces and moved to Italy, where it operated as a fighter-bomber squadron until the end of the war. At the end of the war the squadron took part in the occupation of Austria, before being disbanded in September 1945.  Albert Sachs was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Here pilots from No. 93 Squadron RAF Detachment under Albert Sachs command leave their dugout for a scramble at Nettuno, Italy. Leading the way, from left to right, are: Flying Officer E Stewart of Ipswich, Suffolk; Lieutenant J Marais SAAF of Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sergeant D Karck of Cockerham, Lancashire.

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Salute to ‘Bertie’ Sachs, another very notable, brave and successful South African Air Force pilot of World War 2.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Photographer: Flying Officer B. Bridge B, Royal Air Force official photographer. Image and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, image and affectional caption work obtained from Colourising World War 2.

South Africa was represented at the formal surrender of Japan in 1945

To many South Africans  ‘VJ’ day – Victory over Japan celebrations – the official end of the 2nd World War is seen as American, Australian and British endeavour and not really a South African one – but they could not be more wrong.  Little do they know that South Africa had official representation at the surrender – and for a very good reason.

1945-Original-V-J-DAY-WWII-Pin-pinback-buttonThe 2nd of September is a significant day in the history of the world, it’s the day Japan formally surrendered to finally end World War 2. The ceremony took place on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945, and the South Africans where right there too, represented by Cdr A.P. Cartwright, South African Naval Forces.

Cdr A.P. Cartwright is seen here, overseeing the signature of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser on behalf of the United Kingdom on the Instrument of Surrender. He’s standing in the row of four naval officers left and right of General Douglas MacArthur (behind the microphone), Cdr A.P. Cartwright is on the far left.

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Cdr Cartwright was the senior South African officer on the staff of the American Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Allied commander-in-chief in the Pacific Ocean.

The ceremony aboard the deck of the USS Missouri lasted 23 minutes and was broadcast throughout the world.  This old newsreel footage captures the moment and is the only footage on the net taken from the angle which shows Cdr Cartwright standing with the British delegation at their ceremony (please excuse the poor sound quality).

 

General Douglas MacArthur’s speech summarised the sentiment perfectly, he said; “We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers—to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored. The issues involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion or debate. Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the people of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred. But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all our people unreservedly to faithful compliance with the obligation they are here formally to assume

It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish—for freedom, tolerance and justice.

The terms and conditions upon which the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Forces is here to be given and accepted are contained in the Instrument of Surrender now before you.

As Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, I announce it my firm purpose, in the tradition of the countries I represent, to proceed in the discharge of my responsibilities with justice and tolerance, while taking all necessary dispositions to insure that the terms of surrender are fully, promptly and faithfully complied with.”

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Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic “V-J Day in Times Square” now colourised brings life the general sentiment and relief felt world over at the surrender of Japan.

When the assembled representatives of the Allied Powers and of Japan had finished signing the agreements, General MacArthur, MacArthur saved his very best for last, words that put a closure not only to the ceremony, but to the entire war itself. He stated:

Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nA total of 297 South African Naval Forces (SANF) personnel were killed in action during World War II, and that excludes many South Africans serving directly on British ships as part of the Royal Navy.   Many of these South Africans were lost in actions against the Japanese – especially during Japan’s ‘Easter Raid’ against the British Eastern Fleet stationed at Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) which sank the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on the 5th April 1942 and the HMS Hollyhock and HMS Hermes on the 9th April 1942 – with the staggering loss of 65 South African Naval  personnel seconded to the Royal Navy and on board these 4 British fighting ships.  It was and remains the South African Navy’s darkest hour, yet little is commemorated or know of it today in South Africa, and this is one of the reasons why a SANF official was represented at the formal surrender of Japan.

The South African Navy acquitted itself very well during World War 2.  In all South African Naval Forces (SANF) personnel in World War 2 received 321 awards for gallantry and distinguished service. SANF officers and ratings served in nearly every major naval operation of the war as well as large contingents fulfilling duties in the Asian theatre of operations against Imperial Japan.

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The Japanese representatives on board the USS Massouri,for the signing were the following: Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, General Yoshijirō Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff, Major General Yatsuji Nagai, Katsuo Okazaki (Foreign Ministry), Rear Admiral Tadatoshi Tomioka, Toshikazu Kase (Foreign Ministry), Lt. General Suichi Miyakazi, Rear Admiral Ichiro Yokoyama, Saburo Ota (Foreign Ministry), Captain Katsuo Shiba (Navy) and Colonel Kaziyi Sugita

Related Work and Links:

The complete SA Navy Sacrifice during World War 2 The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

The Japanese Easter Raid and South African Sacrifice The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated

South African Naval Forces against Japan South African Navy at war against …. Imperial Japan!!


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference: Military History Journal, Vol 10 No. 3′ South Africa and the War against Japan 1941-1945′, wikipedia.  Image reference HMS Wager’s commemorative website http://www.hms-wager.org.uk. Alfred Eisenstaedt “V-J Day in Times Square”

Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

It was D-Day+6 when South African statesman, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, was also to cross over to Normandy, accompanying the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by his side.  To this point Smuts had played a pivot role in not only the planning and strategy behind Operation Overlord and the Normandy campaign, he also played a central role as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor and using his considerable political skill, Jan Smuts was to keep Churchill in line with the wishes and objects of not only Overlord’s military commanders (mainly British and American), but also those of the King of Great Britain – George VI.

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Churchill in the lead up to the Normandy campaign was not in favour of the entire operation, he felt that the focus should remain on the Italian campaign and maintained that any available resources should be concentrated to winning it by entering Germany and Austria via what he termed ‘the soft under-belly of Europe’ and not France. The truth of the matter was that the ‘soft-underbelly’ had turned into a slow and costly grind through mountainous terrain, and instead had become a ‘tough old gut’.  Allied military planners now looked to open a third front to stretch the Axis the forces across an Eastern, Western and Southern front.

Operation Overlord

Smuts was to bring considerable expertise to win Churchill over to backing Operation Overlord and opening the third front via France, but he had another challenge, once won over Churchill insisted on meddling in just about everything to do with the invasion plans, bringing him into direct conflict with General Montgomery specifically. General Montgomery was assigned to command the 21st Army Group which consisted of all Allied ground forces that would take part in Operation Overlord, under the overall direction of the Supreme Commander, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Smuts was to stick to Churchill like glue, never leaving his side, not for a moment – he was to arbitrate and advise not only Churchill, but the entire supreme command, lending a guiding and experienced hand – before and during the campaign itself.  In doing so Smuts was to cement a formidable international reputation as not only a sought after military strategist but also a very skilful politician in forming the vision for a post D-Day invasion Europe and the world at large post war.

Typically Churchill had insisted on personally hitting the beach-heads on D-Day itself (undoubtably Smuts, who was no stranger to danger, would have had no option but to be at his side).  Churchill felt it important that as Prime Minister that he should be ashore with the assault forces leading from the front. His peers, the commanders and the King thought him quite mad and it eventually took an intervention from the King George VI to Churchill to insist he was too valuable to be risking his life on what would have amounted to a Public Relations antic.  Ignoring this, as D-Day approached it took a further letter from King George to literally order Churchill to stand down at the last-minute.

Not to be outdone, Churchill did the next best thing, and with Jan Smuts at his side the two of them on D-Day itself – 6th June 1944 went to the port with journalists in toe to wish Godspeed to British and Canadian troops embarking for the liberation of Europe. The troops waiting on the quayside gave the two Prime Ministers (Smuts and Churchill) a hearty cheer as they went up the gangway.

This Pathé newsreel called ‘over there’ captures D-Day and the beach-head breakout (if you watch to the end you’ll see Churchill and Smuts).

In addition, prior to the departing troops on June 6th, the newspapers of the time noted the following as to Smuts and his involvement in the planning;

“General Smuts also accompanied King George V, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on a visit to General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters on ‘D-Day’ and went to the operations room to follow the progress of the battle. Throughout the day General Smuts received independent reports from the highest quarters, of the progress of the invasion operations.”

It was at Eisenhower’s headquarters that, a few days earlier, that Smuts had met the French soldier and statesman General De Gaulle at “a quiet, tree-shaded spot” and that “General Eisenhower, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden were there as well.” The group had spent “nearly two hours together, largely in the war room tent of the Allied Supreme Commander, where the walls are hung with detailed maps and the planned liberation of France.”

Not able to keep Churchill and Smuts away from the action for too long, it was a short 6 days into the landing operations (D-Day +6) on 12 June 1944, that the two of them bordered a destroyer, the HMS Kelvin crossing over to France and into the teeth of the fighting.

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12 June 1944,  The boarding party with Field Marshal Jan Smuts (right), Prime Minister Winston Churchill (centre) and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Rear Admiral W E Parry (bottom right).” Crossing to France D-Day +6

The K-Class destroyer is the HMS Kelvin which reached the French coast at 9.30 a.m. and had steamed through the battle fleet during a bombardment and later joined in the shelling of the German north-east flank. Churchill and Smuts were then conveyed to the beach via a “DUKW” amphibious vehicle where they then met Field Marshal Montgomery, where-after they departed in a jeep for Montgomery’s headquarters for a de-briefing of the progress and offer him advise on the next phases.

Whilst at Montgomery’s head quarters, General Smuts took up the role of photographer (the reason he’s not in the picture) and he was to take this world-famous photograph. From left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery’s mobile headquarters in Normandy.

Churchill:Smuts D-Day

Smuts was rather lucky to survive his visit to Normandy, as both he and Churchill could very well have been killed while visiting Monty’s headquarters at Cruelly.

While visiting the headquarters and as senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister (Churchill), Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, “There are some Germans near us now…I can always tell!”

And lo and behold, just two days later, two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby Rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along (they had become isolated from their unit, seeing that they were unable to rejoin they chose to surrender). Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill (and Monty as well as Smuts), everything would have changed.

There you have it, Smuts’ keen sense of smell and intuition is another attribute you can add to the very long list of honours attributed to this great South African.

The below mage shows Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts with  General Sir Bernard Montgomery at his headquarters, 12 June 1944 looking at aircraft activity overhead.

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It is also really amazing when one considers that Smuts, an erstwhile enemy of the British empire during the South African War (1899-1906), was not only to reconcile himself to his former enemy over the succeeding years, but was also to be greatly respected by two British prime ministers: Lloyd George and Winston Churchill during the First and Second World Wars respectively and served on the appointed war councils in both.  During the Second World War he was even appointed to the British King’s Privy Council – finding himself at the epicentre on how the war was to be conducted and fought.

Notwithstanding the fact that South Africa, with Smuts as head of state, played a very key role in the liberation of Europe, Smuts also represented the large contingent of South African Union Defence Force personnel taking part in Operation Overlord seconded to the Royal Air Force, flying all manner of fighters, transports and gliders and the South Africans seconded to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and serving on the many vessels used in the landings and in the ground invasion forces.

In conclusion

The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war (which very nearly happened in Normandy), Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have to be a peer and British Parliamentary process would have prevented it. Smuts had also already refused a peerage and South Africa’s constitution would not have allowed him to do anyway as he was already the Prime Minister of South Africa – and politics was such with his National Party opposition accusing him of being a ‘traitor’ at every turn, that Smuts in all likelihood would have refused outright lest he alienate his own very split Afrikaner community completely.

Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become to the war effort – strategically, tactically and politically, he was South Africa’s greatest military export – without any doubt – his council sought by Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Field Marshals and Generals. His role in Overlord would rid the world of Nazism and pave the way to the ‘new’ western democratic order and United Nations order that we know today. Simply put Smuts can easily take up the same mantle as Churchill and can stand the very epicentre of our modern values of liberty and western democratic freedoms.

Related Work and Links

Churchill’s desk and Smuts; Churchill’s Desk

Jan Smuts; South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

Jan Smuts; “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.


Written by Peter Dickens.

Photo copyright Imperial War Museum – caption thanks to The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek. Nicholas Rankin,“Churchill’s Wizards, British Genius for Deception 1914-1945”

A South African Air Force D-Day Hero lost: Robert Cumming

Not many people in South Africa today know of South Africa’s involvement in Operation Overlord (D-Day) as the South African forces in Europe at the time were fighting in Italy and not in France.  However there are a small number of South African Union Defence Force members who did take part in the D-Day operations, most seconded to the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines Commandos and the Royal Air Force.

229A number of South African Air Force fighter pilots served during Operation Overlord flying RAF Typhoons and Spitfires and because of the highly treacherous nature of the operations a handful of about five South African Air Force pilots lost their lives.

The first South African sacrifice during Operation Overlord and the D-Day Normandy beach landings was Robert Alexander Cumming, son of Gerald G and Dora E Cumming of East London, Cape Province, South Africa.

Lieutenant Cumming served with 229 Squadron Royal Air Force, 229 Squadron had been stationed in Malta, and was transferred in April 1944 to Britain and re-assembled at RAF Honchurch, on 24 April. During Operation Overlord (the allied invasion of France) it was equipped with the Spitfire IX operating from RAF Detling.

Lt Robert Cumming was providing cover to ‘day-time’ bombers in raids during the invasion period, and also over the beaches to assist the invading forces. Whilst flying Spitfire MJ219 on the 11 June 1944 (D-Day+5), he and his fellow pilot Flight Lieutenant George Mains flying Spitfire BS167 are believed to have flown into the cliffs at Freshwater, Isle of Wight, in heavy fog.

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The driver of a mobile canteen operated by the Church Army offers tea to a Spitfire IX pilot at Detling, Kent.

Robert Cumming can be found here, may he rest in peace, his name will not be forgotten:

supporting-poppy-appeal

Lieut. CUMMING, R.A. Robert Alexander 133975V Pilot SAAF 22 † Parkhurst Military Cemetery, United Kingdom Plot 11. Grave 207

 

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

Donald Gray South African D-Day hero (and one-armed movie star): Donald Gray

Albie Gotze “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Tommy Thomas South African D Day Hero: Lt. D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Jan Smuts South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light


Written by Peter Dickens. Information from John Bloodworth and Sandy Evan Hanes