Gerard Norton is a South African many in his native land should know, and don’t. During the Second World War, he demonstrated what sort of calibre of man he was, not once, but twice! For gallantry he was awarded a Military Medal and in a separate engagement was awarded the highest honour for valour – The Victoria Cross. After the war he took up tobacco farming in Rhodesia, and in 2002 his family was evicted by the Mugabe regime. Another example of one of Southern Africa’s finest, left out of our collective consciousness as we pursue an African revolutionist interpretation of history and honour flawed men, and … so we don’t forget the deeds of much greater men, this the story of Gerard Ross ‘Toys’ Norton.
From Banker to Soldier
‘Toys’ Norton was the descendent of 1820 Settler stock, he was was born in Herschel, Cape Province on the 7th September 1913 – his father, Charles Norton, was an assistant magistrate in Herschel. Educated at Selborne college, East London he was a keen sportsman excelling at cricket, rugby and tennis. He also picked up his nickname ‘Toys’ whilst at Selborne. A hostel at Selborne College is still named in his honour.
When he left school he went into banking, joining Barclays Bank branch in Umtata. A fanatical sportsman he took up badminton, squash, golf and hockey to add to his cricket, rugby and tennis. He even went on to represent the Transkei at cricket and captaining the Transkei rugby team.
He also took an interest in soldiering and joined the Middellandse Regiment as a Citizen Force volunteer. He spent a short time working in the Johannesburg branch of Barclays bank, but he returned to his much loved Eastern Cape, and whilst in East London again he transferred to the Kaffrarian Rifles, a South African Infantry unit formed 1876 originally as the Buffalo Corps of Rifle Volunteers for service in the 9th Frontier War, and then reformed in 1879 into the Kaffrarian Rifles for the South African War (1899-1902) on the side of the British and then took part in the 1st World War.
The Military Medal
When the second world war broke out the Kaffrarian Rifles found itself “up north” and Toys Norton, now holding the rank of Sergeant found himself in the North African sphere of combat operations, first entering the combat zone in 1941 when his regiment proceeded to El Alamein, where they dug the defences which proved so vital the next year. Norton saw his first real action during the attack on Bardia. When Bardia fell his regiment went over to the defence of Tobruk with rest of the 2nd South African Infantry Division under Major General Hendrik Balzazar Klopper who was in command of the defence. After Tobruk was encircled by Rommel and his Axis Forces, rather than “go into the bag” (to be captured) with the rest of South African defenders on the 21st June 1942, Norton and his platoon leader were determined to break out.
Sgt. Gerard Norton, his platoon leader and along with four others where all subsequently posted as missing in action, but the truth was they had taken to the expansive desert in an acquired truck and 160 kilometres later they ran out of petrol. Still determined to evade capture they decided to carry on foot in what can only be described as an epic tale of survival – trekking for 38 days in the desert and covering 750 kilometres until they found a route through the enemy lines and managed to rejoin the 8th Army’s lines at El Alamein. To treat their raw feet, they used axle grease (a tip Norton remembered being given by his mother) from a wrecked truck.
For this remarkable feat ‘Toys’ was awarded the Military Medal.
Recuperation and transfer
A journey of survival like that necessitated some serious rest and recuperation, and after period of rest in Cairo, Norton returned to South Africa. As the military goes, ‘Toys’ was very happy to remain in the non-commissioned officer ranks and although encouraged twice to become a commissioned officer, he refused on both occasions, believing it was his place to be in the field with his men. However on his return to South Africa he relented and decided to do his commissioned officers course.
In finding placement as a commissioned officer, Lieutenant Norton was keen to get back in the action and at the point of his commission he was attached to the 6th South African Armoured Division Pool. Here there was a usually oversubscribed amount of officers and the quickest path to getting back in action lay in a transfer. An ideal opportunity arose and Norton transferred to the British Army now fighting in Italy, and here he was joined to the 1st/4th battalion of the Hampshire Regiment (Later the Royal Hampshire Regiment).
The Victoria Cross
It was in Italy that Lt. Gerard Norton MM would earn the highest accolade for Valour. On the 31st August 1944 he found himself as a platoon commander during an attack on the German’s ‘Gothic line’ at Monte Gridolfo in Italy during Operation Olive (the British Eighth Army attacked on the Adriatic coast along a 50 kilometre front aiming to break through to the Po Vally). The Gothic line was a series of strategic defence points the German army had set up to stop the Allied advance in Italy, and it was proving very formidable, stretching 320 kilometres across Italy from Massa in the West to Pisaro in the East.
Images: Hampshire Regiment in action on the Gothic Line – Imperial War Museum copyright
Three battalions of the Hampshire Regiment advanced on Monte Gridolfo, a formidable strong point in the Gothic line. Around the strong point all undefended houses had been burned to the ground, all trees chopped down and all vegetation burned so as not to provide any attacking force with cover or protection. Monte Gridolfo looked impregnable. Minefields, barbed wire, enemy machine gun positions and well sighted concrete gun emplacements made an attack up the bare slopes around it almost suicidal.
D Company spearheaded the final attack, taking one enemy position after another with Norton in the forefront of the fighting. Norton’s platoon was now caught in a vicious cross-fire from machine-guns zeroing in on his position from both his flanks. Then, whilst his platoon was pinned down by heavy fire, Lieutenant Norton got to his feet and, alone, charged the German concrete gun emplacements. He attacked the first of the strongholds with his sub-machine-gun and grenades, killing three of its crew.
Still alone, and now under direct fire from a self-propelled gun, Norton worked his way forward to a second position containing two machine-guns and 15 riflemen. After a fight lasting 10 minutes he wiped out both machine-gun nests with his tommy gun and took the remainder of the enemy prisoner.
Despite being wounded while trying to rescue a colleague, he went on to clear a cellar and upper rooms of a nearby house of enemy, taking several more prisoners and putting others to flight. Although weak from loss of blood, Norton continued to lead his platoon calmly and resolutely up the valley, where they succeeded in taking the remaining enemy positions, and by the evening the Hampshires had taken Monte Gridolfo.
The citation for his VC says a lot about the man when it stated: “Throughout the attack on Monte Gridolfo, Lieutenant Norton displayed matchless courage, outstanding initiative and inspiring leadership. By his supreme gallantry, fearless example and determined aggression, he assured the successful breach of the Gothic Line at this point.”
In a strange twist of fate with some more South African flavour. Following his actions at Monte Gridolfo, two days later Norton was wounded in the head and thigh in another engagement. Norton recovered from his wounds at the South African base hospital at Bari where he was even fortunate to met up with his twin sister, Olga, who was serving on the hospital staff.
Norton received his Victoria Cross on the 1st December 1944 from King George VI at an investiture at Holyroodhouse in Scotland. Gerard Norton VC MM was also promoted to Captain on the 1st December 1944 and continued to serve with the Hampshires for the remainder of the Italy Campaign. He then spent four months with the occupation forces in Greece before being transferred to Austria.
Picture: Lt Gerard Norton in Italy flanked my media on hearing of his successful nomination for a Victoria Cross – Imperial War Museum copyright
Rhodesian Bush War
At the conclusion of the war, Toys Norton decided to move to Southern Rhodesia (now modern day Zimbabwe). He bought a 4,000-acre tobacco plantation some 160 kilometres from the capital Salisbury (now Harare) and became a Rhodesian citizen. When surrounding farmsteads in his area were being mortared and machine-gunned by guerrillas during the Rhodesian Bush War starting in 1964, Norton became chairman of the local defence committee co-ordinating anti-terrorist tactics. One of his neighbours said of him at the time: “He is one of nature’s gentlemen. He doesn’t like talking politics or war. He just gets on with the job of farming and protecting his family and friends.”
Zimbabwe and eviction
The Bush war lasted until 1979, and Rhodesia formally re-named Zimbabwe on the 18th April 1982. Gerard Norton stayed on and continued to successfully farm tobacco until 1985, when he sold up. He then went to live with a daughter Jenny and son-in-law on their 3,000 acre farm at Trelawney about 100 kilometres from Harare.
Southern African politics was to rear it ugly head in November 2002, when the Norton family was evicted from their farm under President Mugabe’s policy of seizing white-owned farms. Gerard Norton VC MM, now forced off the family farm went on to live in a flat in the suburbs of Harare. Typically to nearly every recipient of a Victoria Cross, Gerard Norton was not very public about his Victoria Cross or his wartime exploits, he remained a very private individual, and although highly revered in Rhodesian society he did not want to be singled out for special treatment, and he was even more realistic when it came to the new Zimbabwean disposition when it came to Britain and its World Wars.
On the eviction Norton, ever the modest man, said “I could go back to South Africa, or England, or anywhere, but why should I? I have lived here for 56 years and I like it.” When asked to comment on his mistreatment by the Zimbabwean regime by the British press he replied, “I certainly don’t expect preferential treatment. I doubt Mugabe even knows what a VC is.”
Life and times
Times have moved, of the life of Captain Gerard Norton VC MM – his Royal Hampshire Regiment is now the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and for politically correct reasons in South Africa the Kaffrarian Rifles reverted its historical roots and is now re-named the Buffalo Volunteer Rifles.
Image: Lt Gerard Norton in Italy in 1944 – Imperial War Museum copyright.
In South Africa, little regard was given to South African Victoria Cross winners by the Nationalist government during the years of Apartheid after WW2 from 1948 to 1994, they officially took a neutral stance during the war but un-officially and via other organs they openly supported Nazi Germany during the war. The Afrikaner Nationalists gave a slight and reluctant nod to two South African World War 2 Victoria Cross recipients because they remained in South African rank or in a South African unit, Edwin Swales VC and Quentin Smythe VC respectively. The other four South African born WW2 VC recipients (of which Norton is one) barely got a nod by the Nationalist government (as they were in their eyes in a much hated ‘British’ rank or unit) and therefore are now found outside South African’s general consciousness – these been Gerard Norton VC, John Nettleton VC, George Gristock VC and Charles Anderson VC.
Despite the obvious mistreatment by changing political circumstances of one of Southern Africa’s bravest, modest and honourable of men, by arguably Southern Africa’s most cowardly, divisive and dishonourable of men, Captain Gerard Norton VC MM, died in Harare the 29th October 2004 at the elderly age of 89. He was cremated, his ashes distributed in Harare. His VC and medal set are displayed at The Royal Hampshire Regiment museum in the UK, ever the victim of political correctness, whether by design or not, neither his homeland of South Africa or his adopted homeland of Rhodesia is mentioned on the display.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
References include: Wikipedia, The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross and George Cross on-line, The Imperial War Museum on-line and The Guardian Newspaper – Captain Gerard Norton VC by Diana Condell, Nov 2004
For more on other South African WW2 Victoria Cross recipients follow these links:
A friend asked the Observation Post a question, what were Sailor Malan’s medals? So down the rabbit hole and here we are … Sailor’s medals. I’m no medal specialist but this is what I’ve managed to find so far. If I’m wrong please feel free to correct me and add to this.
Image: Sailor Malan’s medals on display at the Johannesburg War Museum in Saxonwald
Left to Right – from the highest value (the decoration/medal closest to the heart when the medal rack is worn on the left breast), to the lowest value decoration/medal (the one furtherest from the ‘heart’), and in the case of foreign decorations (other countries) in order of importance after the lowest ‘own’ country medal – Sailor has a few of foreign awards these too, and they are all ‘decorations’ so very important.
Distinguished Service Order & Bar (DSO)
OK, let’s start with Sailor’s DSO, the ‘& Bar’ bit means he was awarded this decoration not once, but twice. In Sailor’s case the DSO is awarded for bravery. Here are the citations for his Distinguished Service Orders:
Acting Squadron Leader Adolph Gysbert Malan, DFC (37604), Royal Air Force, No.74 Squadron. December 24th, 1940.
“This officer has commanded his squadron with outstanding success over an intensive period of air operations and, by his brilliant leadership, skill and determination has contributed to the success obtained. Since early in August 1940, the squadron has destroyed at least 84 enemy aircraft and damaged many more. Squadron Leader Malan has himself destroyed at least eighteen hostile aircraft and possibly another six.”
And on 22nd July, 1941:
Bar to the DSO
Acting Wing Commander Adolph Gysbert Malan, DSO, DFC (37604) Royal Air Force.
“This officer has displayed the greatest courage and disdain of the enemy whilst leading his Wing on numerous recent operations over Northern France. His cool judgement, exceptional determination and ability have enabled him to increase his confirmed victories over enemy aircraft from 19 to 28, in addition to a further 20 damaged and probably destroyed. His record and behaviour have earned for him the greatest admiration and devotion of his comrades in the Wing. During the past fortnight the Wing has scored heavily against the enemy with 42 hostile aircraft destroyed, a further 15 probably destroyed and 11 damaged.”
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Again, the ‘& Bar’ bit means he was awarded this decoration twice, this is still a ‘decoration’ and not a ‘medal’ so it’s very high on the senior level, and in Sailor’s case both times it is awarded to exceptional flying and bravery. Here are the citations for his Distinguished Flying Crosses;
Flight Lieutenant Adolph Gysbert Malan. (37604), Royal Air Force. June 11th, 1940.
“During May 1940, this officer has led his flight, and on certain occasions his squadron, on ten offensive patrols in Northern France. He has personally shot down two enemy aircraft and, probably, three others. Flight Lieutenant Malan has displayed great skill, courage and relentless determination in his attacks upon the enemy.”
And on August 13th, 1940:
Bar to the DFC
Flight Lieutenant Adolph Gysbert Malan. (37604), Royal Air Force.
“Since the end of May, 1940, this officer has continued to lead his flight and, on many occasions the squadron, in numerous successful engagements against the enemy. During the Dunkirk operations he shot down three enemy aircraft and assisted in destroying a further three. In June, 1940, during a night attack by enemy aircraft, he shot down two Heinkel 111’s. His magnificent leadership, skill and courage have been largely responsible for the many successes obtained by his squadron.”
British and Commonwealth Medals
What follows after the decorations on Sailor’s medal rack are medals for World War 2 in order of seniority and these are:
1939-45 Star with Battle of Britain clasp
Campaign medal awarded to all British and Commonwealth personnel who fought in any theatre of operations during WW2. The ribbon shows arms of service – Navy (dark blue), Army (red) and Air Force (light blue).
The ‘Battle of Britain Clasp’ on Sailor’s 1939-45 Star was awarded to those who were engaged in action in the Battle̴ of Britain between 10th July 31st July 1940
The Air Crew Europe Star with France and Germany clasp
The ACE medal was awarded for operational flying from the UK over Europe, between the period 3rd September 1939 to 5th June 1944 (outbreak of war until the start of Operation Neptune on the 5th June 1944, followed by the D-Day Normandy landings on the 6th, so the cut off date is actually 4 June, 1944 for ACE medal), the ribbon is light blue with black edges and yellow stripes, representing continuous service in the air (blue) by day (yellow) and night (black).
The France and Germany clasp was awarded to those who qualified for the France and Germany Star by having participated in land, sea or air operations in, or over, France, Holland, Belgium or Germany between 6 June 1944 and 8 May 1945.
The Defence Medal
Campaign medal awarded for both Operational and non-Operational service during WW2 to British and Commonwealth service personnel (and civilians involved in Service to armed forces). The ribbon is symbolic of the fire bombing air attacks (Orange) on ‘this green and pleasant’ land (Green) of the UK during the ‘blackouts’ (the two thin black lines).
The War Medal (1939-1945) – with a mid Oak Leaf.
Campaign medal for British and Commonwealth personnel who had served full-time in the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy for at least 28 days between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. The medal ribbon is distinguished by the colours of the British Union Flag/Jack.
The Oak Leaf signifies that the individual wearing this medal was MiD (Mentioned in Dispatches). The Oak Leaf on Sailor’s ribbon of this medal indicates the award of the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
There are decorations issued by ‘foreign’ countries to Sailor Malan and they are worn in the more junior position of the medal rack regardless of the seniority of the decoration. Here Sailor Malan received the following:
Legion of Honour (France) Officer Grade
The ‘Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur’ or LdH is France’s highest distinction and is awarded in recognition of both military and civilian merit. There are three ranks; Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer) and Commandeur (Commander). Sailor has the Officer rank.
Croix de Guerre (France)
The French ‘War Cross’ is awarded either as an individual award or a unit award to those combatants who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy.
Croix de guerre (Belgium) with bronze palm
This is the World War 2 variant of the Belgium ‘War Cross’, awarded for bravery or other military virtue on the battlefield. It was reestablished on 20 July 1940 by the Belgian government in exile for recognition of bravery and military virtue during World War 2.
The Bronze Palm means Sailor Malan was ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ by the War Office specifically for a performing heroic or significant deed.
Czecho-Slovakian Military Cross
Ceskoslovenský válecný kríž 1939 is a military decoration of the former state of Czechoslovakia which was issued for those who had provided great service to the Czechoslovak state (in exile) during World War 2.
Awarded to Group Captain Adolph Gysbert Malan on March 5th, 1946 “In recognition of valuable services rendered in connection with the war.”
Now, that’s a lot of ‘Bravery’ and Sailor Malan counts as one of South Africa’s bravest, he’s got the decorations and medals to show for it. I’m no pro when it comes to medals, its a very complex field, so here’s waiting for the medal pros for more information … and go!
Image is from a Johannesburg War Museum PDF. Researched and written by Peter Dickens
Some hidden history – ‘Did you know?’- back of the Chappie gum wrapper facts. Did you know Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – the famous Commander of RAF Bomber Command during WW2 was in fact a Rhodesian and he also had a very strong South African connection, here’s an interesting story and it involves a bugle, a bombing and a baronet.
At the commencement of World War 1, a unit called the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was formed in August 1914. In October it consisted of 500 volunteers. In November the Unit went to Bloemfontein and on to Cape Town by train. On Christmas Day 1914 the Regiment landed in Walvis Bay to join the 4th South African Brigade. After that there were marches and skirmishes against the German troops. One young man in this Regiment was the bugler.
After one skirmish, he got fed up and buried his bugle. They had marched and marched in blazing desert sun in German South West Africa (modern day Namibia), from January to June 1915, when the campaign finally ended. He swore he would never march another step into battle. The young man was Arthur Travers (Bomber) Harris and with this act he gave up foot soldiering into battle and took up flying into battle instead.
We have all heard about his exploits and management of RAF Bomber Command during World War 2, but few know of his lifelong connection with South Africa. In fact, he was even a founder member and General Manager of SAFMARINE.
First World War
Born in the Gloucestershire, England, Harris emigrated to Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in 1910 when he was 17. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Harris did not learn of it for nearly a month, being out in the bush at the time. Despite his previous reluctance to follow the path his father had in mind for him in the army, and his desire to set up his own ranch in Rhodesia, Harris felt patriotically compelled to join the war effort.
He quickly attempted to join the 1st Rhodesia Regiment, which had been raised by the British South Africa Company administration to help put down the Maritz Rebellion in South Africa, but he found that only two places were available; that of a machine-gunner or that of a bugler. Having learnt to bugle at Allhallows School in Devon, he successfully applied for the bugler slot and was sworn in on the 20th October 1914.
The 1st Rhodesia Regiment briefly garrisoned Bloemfontein, then served alongside the South African forces in South-West Africa under South African command during the first half of 1915. The campaign made a strong impression on Harris, particularly the long desert marches—some three decades later, he wrote that “to this day I never walk a step if I can get any sort of vehicle to carry me”. South-West Africa also provided Harris with his first experience of aerial bombing: the sole German aircraft in South-West Africa attempted to drop artillery shells on his unit, but failed to do any damage. How prophetic that his next idea of a “vehicle” to carry him into battle would be an aeroplane.
When the South-West African Campaign ended in July 1915, the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was withdrawn to Cape Town, where it was disbanded; Harris was formally discharged on 31 July.
He felt initially that he had done his part for the Empire, and went back to Rhodesia to resume work at Lowdale, but he and many of his former comrades soon reconsidered when it became clear that the war in Europe was going to last much longer than they had expected. They were reluctant to join the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, which was being raised to serve in East Africa, perceiving the “bush whacking” of the war’s African theatre as inferior to the “real war” in Europe. Harris sailed for England from Beira at the Company administration’s expense in August, a member of a 300-man party of white Southern Rhodesian war volunteers.
He arrived in October 1915, moved in with his parents in London and, after unsuccessfully attempting to find spaces in first the cavalry, then the Royal Artillery, he finally joined the Royal Flying Corps as a Second Lieutenant in November 1915.
He served with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a Flight Commander and ultimately CO of No. 45 Squadron, before he returned to Britain to command No. 44 Squadron on Home Defence duties, Harris claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed and was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC) on 2 November 1918.
He finished the 1st World War a Major and remained in the RAF as a career choice. Although born British, he identified himself as a Rhodesian Intending to return to Rhodesia one day, to this sentiment Harris wore a “Rhodesia” shoulder flash on his RAF uniform.
Second World War
Much is written about ‘Bomber’ Harris in the Second World War and a lot of it very controversial. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Harris took command of No. 5 Group RAF in England, and in February 1942 was appointed head of Bomber Command. He retained that position for the rest of the war.
In 1942, a seminal paper was put to the British Cabinet advocating the idea of area bombing of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by Cabinet and Harris was directed to carry out the task. It became an important part of the ‘Total War’ strategy waged against Nazi Germany.
At the start of the bombing campaign, ‘Bomber’ Harris famously justified the idea of area bombing by quoting the Old Testament:
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
Images: Colourised images by DB Colour and RJM of Bomber Command Lancaster and crew.
Winston Churchill regarded the idea of area bombing strategy with distaste, official public statements maintained that Bomber Command was attacking only specific industrial targets, any civilian casualties were unavoidable and were unintentional. By 1943, Harris urged the government to be honest with the public regarding the purpose of area bombing and said:
“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany … the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.”
Harris pressed for raids on a much larger scale and launched the first RAF “thousand bomber raid” against Cologne in May 1942, his successes using this method of aerial warfare saw him promoted to Air Marshal and even acting Air Chief Marshal by March 1943.
The Butcher’s Bill
Leading up to and after D-Day, 6 June 1944, the bombing campaign continued to attract controversy, but the most controversial was the bombing of Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945. More than 1,200 heavy bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city in four successive raids. An estimated 25,000 people were killed in the bombings and the firestorm that raged afterward. More than 75,000 dwellings were destroyed, along with unique monuments of Baroque architecture in the historic city centre. The scale of the death and destruction, coming so late in the war, along with significant questions about the legitimacy of the targets destroyed have led to years of debate about whether the attack was justified.
Image: Colourised Royston Colour image of Dresden post bombing.
This issue on whether Dresden qualified a military target or not and in fact may have been an unnecessary bombing continues to this day, with evidence even pointing to targeting the ‘old city’ for a firestorm rather than the industrial sector as was the officially stated objective. In either event, what is known is that area bombing by nature was very inaccurate and indiscriminate and the death toll extreme, and the RAF and Bomber Command would admit that the entire area bombing campaign including Dresden was ‘somewhat overdone,’ but this sentiment was wrapped in secrecy for many years after the war.
To see this Butcher’s bill in total, consider these estimates. Civilian deaths in Germany from Allied bombing was more recently estimated at 380,000. Bomber Command dropped 53 per cent of all the ordnance sent to Germany. Firestorms caused by Bomber Command’s incendiaries killed over 34,000 civilians in Hamburg in July 1943, 5,600 in Kassel in October 1943, at least 7,500 in Darmstadt in September 1944, 25,000 in Dresden and 17,600 in Pforzheim in February 1945 and 4,000-5,000 in Würzburg in March 1945: nearly 100,000 dead for the half-dozen deadliest raids.
The attitudes to this style bombing of Nazi Germany populace at the time were becoming very ‘hard’, an attitude exhibited by nearly all the Allied combatants involved in it, as the war had rung out an alarming butchers bill on civilians in all the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. Notwithstanding the Nazi Blitz campaign of British cities at the start of the war and Nazi ‘wonder weapons’ indiscriminately bombing London’s civilians towards the end of the war. This hard attitude was best surmised by a British Bomber Command air-crewman when he said this during a World at War interview:
“If you couldn’t get the Kraut in his factory, it was just as easy to knock him off in his bed, and (if) Granny Schicklgruber in the seat next door got the chop that’s hard luck!” (The sarcastic reference to Schicklgruber was Maria Schicklgruber, Adolph Hitler’s paternal Grandmother).
Image: Avro Lancaster Bomber ‘B’ MkI ‘Victorious Virgin’ crew showing the attitude of the day, this 4000 pound ‘cookie’ bomb was dropped on an Oil Refinery in Hemmingstedt in March 1945, near Heide in Germany. Colourised by Tom Thounaojam.
The culmination of Bomber Command’s offensive occurred in March 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordnance in the entire war, mainly on Berlin to support the Russian offensive to take the city. In all Harris was asked if strategic area bombing would work in winning the war at the beginning of the campaign and his reaction was “we shall see”. In hindsight, the campaign went a very long to way to ultimately break resolve and bring Germany to its knees economically, but it happened at a tremendous cost in human lives, not only civilian, lets examine the butcher’s bill on Bomber Command:
Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped unscathed (at least physically). Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed. Of those who were flying at the beginning of the war, only ten percent survived. It is a loss rate comparable only to the worst slaughter of the First World War trenches. Only the Nazi U-Boat force suffered a higher casualty rate. On a single night, Bomber Command suffered more losses than did Fighter Command during the entire Battle of Britain.
One must also caution here, whilst the figures on both sides of the Butcher’s Bill are high for British and American combined Bomber Command Ops, Germany by no means comes through smelling of roses – their campaigns and targeting of civilians is staggering – in all about 90,500 British civilians were killed and that’s nothing compared to the estimated civilian deaths in Yugoslavia of 1.2 million, Poland 5.7 million and USSR 7.0 million. To say that attitudes had hardened when it came to the combatants would be an understatement.
It would be unfair with a modern day sense of sensibility to look at Bomber Harris and the men of Bomber Command as a war criminals, one has to look them him in the context of their time and the great struggle surrounding them, especially the extreme choices taken to bring about an end to a war of this nature.
However, in his ‘Butcher’s Bill,’ one cannot help but note there is a ‘World War 1’ mind in Bomber Harris, but it’s not an uncommon one for a Commander in his time, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery can also be accused of the same. It is one whereby ‘attrition’ is used to gradually overwhelm using overwhelming odds, it rings true to the WW1 Battle of Verdun, a meat grinding approach to who runs out of resources, especially human resources first. It eventually wins wars, no doubt, but at a tremendous cost in human lives.
After the war Harris moved to South Africa where he founded and managed SAFMARINE, short for the South African Marine Corporation. Safmarine, is a South African business success story involved in international container shipping and break-bulk shipping services worldwide. It is now owned by its parent company, the Maersk Line.
In 1953 he returned to the United Kingdom to accept a Baronetcy, which strangely, Winston Churchill insisted he receive, and here he lived out the rest of his long life in Goring-on-Thames passing away at 91 years old in 1984. He even managed to see the creation of his much loved Rhodesia into Zimbabwe as a nation state.
In all, it’s a fact that Southern Africa in its harshest form would fashion the man into what Arthur Harris was to become, it’s also clear that the German South West African Campaign in World War 1 would fashion a steel willed and uncompromising attitude of endurance and perseverance in a world of hardships, and one in which he would look to aviation instead of marching into battle to ultimately win wars. With all the modern day accusations of Harris been a ‘war criminal’ for his actions against civilians I wonder sometimes if someone may eventually dig up his buried bugle in Namibia and what that would come to symbolise.
Images: Sir Arthur Harris GCB, OBE, AFC and the Green Park Bomber Command Memorial
To the opening statement, I hear some colleagues say “everyone knows he was a Rhodesian”, well nope- the reason I say his South African and Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) heritage and history is relatively unknown, and for that matter this includes a great many other Rhodesians and South Africans (including two Victoria Cross recipients – Wing Commander John Nettleton VC and Captain Edwin Swales VC) who were sacrificed whilst taking part in Bomber Command operations, is that when the Bomber Command War Memorial was finally unveiled in Green Park in London in 2012, not one South African or Rhodesian military veteran association member and not one dignitary from South Africa or Zimbabwe took part in it. From the Commonwealth, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, even West Indians – all got a nod, I watched the entire unveiling ceremony on BBC and not even a mention of a South African, not even the Victoria Crosses and numerous other decorations for valour won by them whist in Bomber Command.
Some may even say, given all the controversy, better not to have been there anyway. But that would be to dishonour a generation that sacrificed so much, physically and mentally, for our modern freedoms. Especially our countrymen in Bomber Command who found themselves in this most extraordinary and very tragic period of our wartime history, these are men who had to face hard and very fateful decisions, the world at times has forgotten our WW2 contributions, lest we forget them too.
Researched by Peter Dickens.
Large content and additional research with much thanks to Buskruit Burger.
Large extracts from wikipedia and Bomber Command Museum on line. Statistics referenced from Andrew Knapp: The Horror and the Glory: Bomber Command in British Memories since 1945 and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
This article has been a long time in coming because it’s really a simple soldier’s story … it’s mine … and I’m a real son-of-a-bitch to consolidate myself with and as such this has been very hard to put together. However, I hope it gives some insight into what it was like to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF) from the unbanning of the ANC and release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990 to the landmark year for the transformation of South Africa’s democracy in April 1994.
It’s also a testament and a cathartic exercise, as … ta da! No surprise to anyone who knows me personally and what I went through with Covid 19, but I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So, no surprise on the Covid front, but it’s the root of the PTSD that’s the real problem, and it boils down to my time in the SADF from 1990 to 1994, it settled on ‘Trust’ or lack thereof really.
“Ag Fok man! No more PTSD G3/K3 Fucked Up Kak” some of my fellow veteran buddies may jump to, heck at one stage I felt the same. But bear with me ‘manne’, this is not a ‘outreach’ or a ‘call for help’ .. I’m solid, in good spirits and very stable (more on this later). What my therapy disclosed is in fact a very interesting bit of history not often held up in the narrative of 1994 and it possesses a load of inconvenient truths, that’s what this story is really all about. So, here goes;
Wit en Swart Gevaar (White and Black Danger)
In 1990 Whilst the now ‘unbanned’ African National Congress (ANC) was finding its political feet and locating itself to ‘Shell House’ near Bree Street in Johannesburg, I was located at Witwatersrand Command’s new HQ Building – also in Bree Street a block away – the nearby old HQ at the bottom of Twist Street called the ‘Drill Hall’ had been all but abandoned after it was bombed by a ‘lone’ ANC cadre – who oddly was a ‘white Afrikaner’ from a top Upper Middle Class Afrikaans school, Linden High School, and who had some serious ‘Daddy issues’ with his Conservative father and upbringing. With the building now declared ‘unsafe’ the HQ had moved next door. Here begins my problem in trying to define the enemy – as we had been conditioned by the old Afrikaner Nationalists and in the SADF that the ‘enemy’ was a ‘Swart Gevaar’ (Black Danger) and a ‘Rooi Gevaar’ (Communist Red Danger) – not a ‘Wit Gevaar’ (White Danger) with a Upper Middle-Class sense of Liberalism as the bomber in question, Hein Grosskopf, was.
So, here I am, a freshy minted National Serviceman ‘one-pip’ Loot ( 2nd Lieutenant or Subaltern) seconded to Wit (Witwatersrand) Command Operations (Ops) from my initial placement at D-Ops (Directive Operations) located in a underground circular shafted ‘nuclear proof’ building in Pretoria called Blenny, the building whose Top Secret Ops room looked like a scene out of Dr Strangelove had its entry bunker located near the Pretoria Prison. This underground building is now falling derelict as a SAAF HQ, in my time the personnel stationed there were known as the ‘Blenny rats’ for obvious reasons, and funnily I can count myself as one.
My job at Wit Command (not ‘Wits’ Command mind – that designation was for the nearby University) was to provide Operation Support and send Top Secret daily SITREP (situation reports) from Wit Command to D Ops at Blenny, or just been a ‘Bicycle’ as my fellow senior officers called ‘one pip’ 2nd Lieutenants (you can ‘trap’ i.e. peddle/stamp on a bicycle), the lowest rung on the officer rank profile.
Whilst parking in my cushy post in the Ops room in September 1990 processing a whack of casualties reported on Johannesburg’s railway lines as the ANC dealt with ‘sellouts’ by throwing them off the commuter trains, the Railways Police and Army Group 18 collecting the corpses and sending reports to me for the daily SITREP and suddenly ‘bang’ another bomb blast (more like a muffled ‘thump’ actually), this one a couple of city blocks away in nearby Doornfontein and the target is the old Beeld Newspaper Offices, the bomb later turned out to be placed by the Orde Boerevolk – one of the spin-off militant White Supremacist Groups. Swart Gevaar suddenly turned Wit Gevaar again. Luckily nobody killed.
This ‘White’ Danger did not end there for me that month. Being a ‘bicycle’, 2nd Lieutenant I was given the shift nobody wanted, the weekend shift in the Ops room, the ‘Commandants’ (Lt. Colonels – and there were loads of them in Army Ops), were all at home enjoying their braai’s and brander’s. It was a 24 hour on – 48 hour off gig with no brass around so I enjoyed it. Late on a Saturday night, its all quite and I’m stretched out on a cot behind the signaller’s station watching TV and enjoying my lekker time in the ‘Mag’ when a white Ford Cortina pulled up in Bree Street, four white men in the car, out step two, one of them wearing a AWB arm band hangs back standing watch and the other walks up to the entrance of Wit Command and calmy shoots a 21 Battalion sentry on duty in the reception in the head.
21 (Two-One) Battalion was a ethnic Black Battalion – the SADF was ethnically funny that way, so this was basically a white extremist shooting a black SADF troop as a terror attack. I hear the gunshot, then get a frantic call from the guard room. There is no medic support and only one other officer on the base, so I grab a hand-held radio and the emergency medic bag and give instructions to the signaller to stay on the radio and relay messages. The troopie is fortunately alive, the bullet having passed through his jaw as he flinched away from his attacker’s gun. I patch him up with bandages from the medical kit bag and radio the signaller to call an emergency medical evacuation. I then issue an order to the 21 Battalion Guard Commander to double the guard, take note from witnesses as to what happened and then back to my post to disturb my senior officer’s weekend. ‘Wit Gevaar’ had struck Wit Command again.
Image : AWB Clandestine paramilitary
Given the general carnage in the country created by the AWB, the Inkata Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC) at this time it did not take long for the ANC version of ‘Swart Gevaar’ and it would hit me directly again about two weeks later in October 1990 when I received a desperate call over the Ops room phone from an ANC informant, his cover blown and an angry ANC mob had turned up outside his house in Soweto. I was unable to get an extraction to him in the time that it took for the mob to break down the door and the line go dead after I had to listen to his desperate pleading to me for help, the Police picked up his body later. The dismissive and rather racist attitude of one of the other officers present to the whole incident .. “just another kaffir.”
Shortly after that in October ANC ‘danger’ turned to IFP ‘danger,’ same scenario I’m sat on the weekend in the Ops room enjoying my cushy 24 hours on 48 hours off. This incident strangely happened on a Sunday afternoon, so again the Command is relatively silent manned only by a skeleton staff. Odd for a Sunday, but a small group of IFP supporters banishing traditional weapons (deadly spears and pangas in reality) had made its way down Twist Street from Hillbrow and was making its way past the old Drill Hall to Bree Street, which, as it was still a SADF installation had a group of 21 Battalion guards staying in it. One troop was casually standing outside having a smoke, and I don’t know if it was a ethnic retaliation of Zulu sentiment for a Black SADF troop, but in any event, he got attacked – hit by a panga as he lifted his arms to prevent a killing blow.
Same drill as previous – no medics around and only 2 officers on the base, grab radio to relay instructions, grab bomb bandages, immediately double the guard, relay instructions to my signaller. I get to the troop and start bandaging him up, however as the panga had severed veins and done other general carnage in both his arms it took some bomb bandages and applied pressure to get it the bleeding under control before an ambulance arrived.
Image: Inkata Freedom Party member taunts a black SADF soldier
He lived, but the strange bit for me, next morning – Monday early, I had been up all night and my uniform was covered in blood. The Commandant, whose lekker branders and braai weekend I had once again disturbed, came in earlier than expected at 06:30am, called me in ‘on orders’, and whilst ‘kakking me out’ from high told me I was derelict in my duty for not wearing barrier gloves when treating a casualty, who, as he was a black man (and to his racially ‘verkrampt’ mind) he would likely have AIDS, thus I was endangering myself as government property. That there were no barrier gloves around was not an excuse – and as some sort of punitive measure, he then instructed me to attend the morning parade on the open ground on the Command’s car park (as Ops Officers we had usually been excluded from it). I objected on the basis that I could not change my uniform in time, but he would have none of it.
So, there I stood, an officer on parade covered in blood from saving yet another lowly regarded ‘black’ troopie, watching the sun come up over a Johannesburg skyline on a crisp clear day (if you’ve lived in Johannesburg, you’ll know what this is like, it’s the town’s only redeeming factor – it’s stunning) all the time thinking to my myself “this is one fucked up institution.”
There were more instances of the random nature of violence at the time, I was called to and attended to the stabbing of a woman (later criticised by a Commandant for calling a emergency ambulance for a mere ‘civilian’) – she had a very deep stab wound about two inches above her mons pubis into her lower intestines which looked pretty bad to me, so I called it and I have no regrets. I was also called to help with a off duty white troop who staggered into the Command late Saturday night with a blunt trauma to the back of the skull and subsequently pissed himself and went into shock.
Oh, and if the general populace wasn’t bad enough, then there were the ‘own team’ military ‘idiots’ which posed a danger all of their own, my first ‘Padre’ call out as an Ops officer was for a troop shot dead by his buddy playing around with his 9mm side-arm, and some months later on after a morning parade walking back to the Bree Street building I had to deal with an accidental discharge gunshot in the guardroom of the old Drill Hall which saw two troops with severe gunshot wounds (a conscript Corporal in counter-intelligence decided to check R4 assault rifles standing on their bi-pods on the ground, one discharged taking off a big chunk of his calf muscle which was in front of the muzzle, the bullet then entering both legs of a 21 Battalion guard standing opposite him).
One thing was very certain to me … everyone, black and white .. from white right wing Afrikaners to left wing English and Afrikaner whites .. to militant and angry Zulus, Tswanas and Xhosas and just about everyone in between was a threat to my life whilst in uniform. These instances whilst serving as an Ops officer would later serve as the basis of stressor trigger during my Covid experience. To me in 1990 there was no such thing as a ‘friendly’, extreme racism, danger and hate coursed in all directions and the old Nationalist idea of the ‘Gevaar’ was a crock of shit.
Wit Command Citizen Force
On finishing my National Service (NS) stint, I immediately landed up in my designated Citizen Force Unit, 15 Reception Depot (15 OVD/RCD) which was part of Wit Command and basically handled the bi-annual National Service intakes and call-ups (reserve forces included). It also provided surplus personnel to assist in Wit Command’s administration, and that included Operations and Intelligence work. By 1991, I was back doing ‘camps’ and had impressed my new Commanding Officer (CO) enough to earn my second ‘pip’ and now I was a substantiated Full Lieutenant, an officer good and proper. I had previously keenly jumped at a role as a Convoy Commander escorting raw SADF recruits to their allocated training bases.
Images of Nasrec NSM intakes circa 1990-1993. Photo of Lt. Col Mannie Alho (then a Captain) and Miss South Africa, Michelle Bruce at an intake courtesy Mannie Alho.
These were ‘fully armed’ operations as NSM intakes were regarded as a ‘soft’ and very ‘public’ target, of much value for an act of terrorism. As such each convoy needed an armed escort with a lot of Intelligence and logistics support. If you need to know how dangerous – consider how many times a recruitment station has been bombed in the Iraq and/or Afghanistan conflicts. I volunteered for the furthest and most difficult escort as the Convoy Commander – the bi-annual call up to 8 South African Infantry Battalion in Upington (8 SAI). My ‘escort’ troops were made up of Wit Command reservists, some from Personal Services but most of them with Infantry Battalion backgrounds, Border War veterans in the main and highly experienced.
By 1994 I had really earned my spurs doing ‘long distance’ Convoy Command. In early 1993 my CO – Lt. Col Mannie Alho had seen enough potential in me to kick me off to do a ‘Captain’s Course’ at Personal Services School at Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria. At the beginning of 1994 Colonel Alho called me in, handed me a promotion to Captain and gave me his old Captain’s ‘bush pips’ epaulettes he had in his drawer – a gesture and epaulettes I treasure to this day.
Images: … erm, me – in case anyone is wondering why the ‘Bokkop’ (Infantry beret), I started off at 5 SAI, then PSC, then back in an infantry role in Ops.
At this time around Wit Command, a number of significant things happened involving all of us in 15 RCD to some degree or other – some less so, others more so. It was a BIG year. In all, these instances would really question who the enemy was in any soldier’s mind serving in the ‘old’ SADF at that time.
The Reserve Call-Up – 1994
Firstly, the call up of the SADF Reserve in the Witwatersrand area to secure the country for its democratic transformation. Generally, in 1994 the SADF was running out of National Servicemen – the ‘backbone’ of the SADF, the annual January and July intake of ‘white’ conscripts had dwindled alarmingly. Generally, the white public saw the writing on the wall as to the end of Apartheid and the end of whites-only conscription program and simply refused to abide their national service call-ups.
As to the ‘Permanent Force’ (PF), the professional career element of the SADF, many senior officers (and a great many Commandants) along with warrant officers and some senior NCO’s took an early retirement package. They had seen the writing on the wall as to their role in the Apartheid security machine and felt they had been ‘sold out’ by the very apparatus they had sworn their allegiance to. Some would head into politics in the Conservative Party, others would join the AWB structure and other ‘Boerevolk’ resistance movements and some took their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) amnesty’s and quietly retired. Others would just bow out honourably, their time done. Nearly all of them totally fed up with FW De Klerk and his cabal and feeling utterly betrayed by them – even to this day, and I meet many in military veteran circles.
As to the other part of the SADF ‘backbone’ of which I was one – the Citizen Force, then made up almost exclusively of ‘white’ ex-National Service members now undertaking their ten odd years of ‘camp’ commitments. In 1994, it was on the cards that a future ‘whites only’ conscription would be stopped, but the problem was a great many soldiers would be needed to stop the country falling into a violent abyss and continuing its journey to a free fully democratic election. To keep up with resourcing requirements, the government contested that ‘whites only’ conscripts who had completed their National Service and were now serving in citizen force Regiments and Commandos must continue to do so and attend their call ups (or risk being fined).
Many were simply sick and tired of the situation; they had done their ‘Border Duty’ and ‘Townships’ and had seen the writing on the wall. They knew the Citizen Force structures would be toothless trying to enforce the camp call-ups and ‘fines’. Many just didn’t bother with a camp call up and just wanted to get on with their professional and family lives. A small few however split their loyalty on political grounds and made their way into the AWB and other Boerevolk Armed Resistance movements instead.
Images: AWB Training – note the use of parts of SADF ‘Browns’ uniform
However, and this is a truism, a great many of these active reservists (the vast majority) stayed on out of sheer loyalty to serve their country no matter what, and to serve their comrades (a powerful bond of brotherhood develops when you serve) and to execute their mandates as well trained and professional military personnel. It was to this element of the Citizen Force that the government would ultimately turn to for help and implore them to volunteer to steer the country to democracy. Even the old ‘End Conscription Campaign’ anti-apartheid movement moved to support the ‘camper call up’ for the 1994 general elections.
Personally, I found the SADF military personnel moving to join the AWB and other White Supremist groupings very disappointing as I honestly believe they were hoodwinked and misled. Whilst serving in the SADF, the AWB presented itself as a very distinct enemy and they had no problems targeting the SADF – of that I had first-hand experience, so very little doubt. I find myself often in military veteran circles in contact with some of these veterans and must say I still find it difficult to reconcile with them.
The country’s military also can’t just ‘sommer’ fall apart when a new political party is elected, the loyalty and oath on my officer’s commission is not party political it’s to the State. As a soldier, acting against the State is an act of sedition and all it did was show up these SADF soldiers as loyal to political causes, in this case the National Party’s Apartheid policy and not to the country per se, the military, or their fellow comrades-in-arms still in the military. Having any of them on the ‘inside’ at this time simply qualified them in my eyes as yet another form of ‘Wit Gevaar’.
To secure the transition of the country to its new democratic epoch, CODESA (the Committee overseeing the establishment of a new constitution and transition of power) proposed the National Peacekeeping Force (NPK), a hastily assembled force consisting of SADF soldiers, some ‘Bantustan’ Defence Force soldiers and ANC MK cadres, to conduct peace-keeping security operations and secure the 1994 election. The NPK was a disaster, SADF officers complained of the very poor battle form and discipline, especially of the ANC ‘cadres’ and pointed to basic cowardice. All this materialised in the accidental shooting and killing of the world renown press photographer, Ken Oosterbroek by a NPK member nervously taking cover behind journalists advancing on a IFP stronghold. The NPK was finally confined to barracks in disgrace and quietly forgotten about (even to this day).
Images: National Peacekeeping Force in Johannesburg and surrounds
So, it was the old SADF that would have to do the job of taking the country into democracy. I was at the Command when this news came in on the NPK, and I must say I was very relieved, I felt we had been held back ‘chomping at the bit’ literally, and this was our opportunity to shine. It was the opportunity for all involved in the SADF at the time to redeem its image so badly battered by its association to Apartheid and the controversial decision in the mid 80’s to deploy the SADF in the Townships against an ‘internal enemy’ (protesting South African citizens in reality) as opposed to the ‘Rooi Gevaar’ enemy on the Namibia/Angola border (MPLA, SWAPO and Cuban Troops). Added to this were the emerging confessions of political assassinations by Civil Co-Operation Bureau (CCB) members, a SADF clandestine ‘black-ops’ group off the hinge and operating outside the law.
The decreasing pools of experienced SADF soldiers, the increasing violence between ANC and IFP supporters, the substantial increase in attacks and bombings by armed ‘Boerevolk’ white supremacist movements like the AWB and others, and the disaster that was the ‘National Peacekeeping Force’ and its disbandment; all forced CODESA and the FW de Klerk government to call-up the SADF’s National Reservists. This was done to boost troop numbers and inject experience into the ranks, take over where the NPK left off, and secure the country’s democratic transition and elections.
A Reception Depots primary role is ‘mustering’ and this does not matter if it’s a citizen recruit for Military Service – conscript or volunteer or the mustering of the country’s National Citizen Force Reserve. The mustering of the SADF Reserve in Johannesburg took place at Group 18 (Doornkop) Army Base near Soweto and as 15 Reception Depot I was there with our officer group to process the call-ups, see to their uniform and kit needs and forward these Reservists to their designated units to make them ‘Operational’.
Operational Citizen Force members in Johannesburg and surrounds during 1994
Swaggering around the hanger rammed full of reservists, as a newly minted Captain and trying to look important, I was tasked with dealing with a handful of reservists who had abided the call-up but turned up wearing civilian clothes and no ‘balsak’ kitbag and uniforms in sight. The Army regulations at time allowed National Servicemen to demobilise but they had to keep their uniforms in case they are called back. I was to send them to the Quarter Master Hanger to get them kitted out again but had to ask what they did with their uniforms. Expecting a “I got fat and grew out of it” or “the gardener needed it more” I got a response I did not expect. They all destroyed or disposed of their SADF uniforms – three said they had even ceremonially burned their uniforms when they left the SADF they hated serving in it so much. All of them said; despite this, for this occasion, the securing of a new dawn democracy, for this they would gladly return and serve again, they just needed new browns. It got me thinking, and I felt we were really standing on the precipice of history and as ‘men of the hour’ we were going a great thing. We were the men who, at an hour of great need, had heeded the call to serve the country, and we were to advance human kind and deliver full political emancipation to all South Africans, regardless of race, sex or culture…. heady stuff indeed!
Images: SADF Citizen Force members guarding polling stations and securing ballots during the 1994 election.
A very ‘Noble Call’ and I felt very privileged and excited at the time that I was involved in such an undertaking, I felt like my old ‘Pops’ (Grandfather) did when the country called for volunteers to fight Nazism in World War 2. We were most certainly on a great precipice.
I don’t want to get into the “look at it now” as I type this in 2022 during Stage 5 loadshedding. That was not the issue in 1994, the ANC miss-management and plundering of the country of its finances decades later was not on the cards then, what was on the cards was the disbandment of an oppressive political regime looking after a tiny sect of Afrikaner Nationalists and in the interests of a minority of white people only, and one which was trampling on the rights of just about everyone else. The idea of a country, a ‘rainbow nation’ with one of the most liberated constitutions in the world was paramount at the time, and I’m very proud of my role in this (albeit small), my UNITAS medal for my role in all this still sits proudly on my medal rack.
Newspaper at the time capturing the mutual confidence in the future of a ‘new South Africa’ and avoiding ‘the abyss.’
These ‘white’ ex-conscript reservists guarded election booths, gave armed escort to ballot boxes, patrolled the ‘townships’ keeping APLA, ANC, IFP and AWB insurgents away from killing people – black and white in the hopes of disrupting the election. If you think this was a rather ‘safe’ walk in the park gig, the ‘war’ or ‘struggle’ was over, think again. I accompanied Group 42 soldiers later in an armoured convoy into Soweto and it was hair raising to say the least. Which brings me to the next incident in 1994.
The Shell House Massacre – 1994
As noted, earlier Shell House was located a block away from Wit Command and was the ANC’s Head Office in the early 90’s (Letuli House came later). On the 28 March 1994, IFP supporters 20,000 in number marched on the ANC Head Office in protest against the 1994 elections scheduled for the next month. A dozen ANC members opened fire on the IFP crowd killing 19 people, ostensibly on the orders of Nelson Mandela. SADF soldiers from Wit Command mainly reservists and national servicemen were called to the scene, on arrival, to save lives they put themselves between the ANC shooters and the IFP supporters and along with the South African Police brought about calm and an end to the massacre.
I was not there that day, but some of my colleagues at Wit Command were and all of them would experience ‘elevated’ stress and take a hard line, fully armed response when it came to dealing with protests, especially on how quickly they could go pear shaped. This would permeate to all of us in our dealings with this kind of protesting (more on this later). If you think this incident was yet another in many at this time, note the photo of the dead IFP Zulu man, shot by an ANC gunman, his shoes taken off for his journey to the after-life, and then note the three very nervous but determined SADF servicemen from Wit Command putting themselves in harm’s way to prevent more death.
Images: Shell House Massacre
The Bree Street bombing and 1994 Johannesburg terrorist spree
Not even a few weeks after the Shell House Massacre, the ANC HQ on the same little patch on Bree Street as Wit Command was to be hit again, and this time it was as destruction outside Shell House was on an epic level.
The bomb went off on 24th April 1994 near Shell-house on Bree Street and was (and still is) regarded as the largest act of bombing terrorism in Johannesburg’s history’. It was part of a bombing spree focussed mainly around Johannesburg which left 21 people dead and over 100 people with injuries between April 24 and April 27, 1994. The worst and most deadly campaign of terrorist bombings in the history of the city.
And … it was not the ANC, nope, my old enemy in 1990 had reappeared with vengeance, it was ‘Wit Gevaar,’ it was the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) again. Luckily, I was not at our HQ at Wit Command when the bomb went off, however I was there afterward to see the carnage – the whole city block was sheer destruction – everywhere.
The thunderous blast of a 150 pounds of explosives set off at 09:50 am left a waist-deep crater in the street about midway between the national and regional headquarters of the African National Congress, shattered glass and building structures for blocks and lacerated scores of passers-by on the quiet Sunday streets and residents in the surrounding high-rise buildings. It was the deadliest blast of its kind in South Africa since 1983.
Images: AWB Bree Street Bombing
A total of 7 people were dead in Bree Street, mostly by-standers and civilians from all racial and ethnic groups and 92 people in total were injured. The only reason behind the low death toll is that the bomb went off (and was planned) for a Sunday when the streets were relatively empty. Even though it was a Sunday, members of the Army from Wit Command, SAP and especially SADF Medics quickly moved in to secure the bomb blast area and treat the wounded.
The AWB bombing campaign did not stop there, it continued at pace, the very next day on April 25 a bomb was placed in a trailer allegedly belonging to the AWB leader, Eugene Terre’Blanche (the AWB later claimed it had lost the trailer during its disastrous Bophuthatswana campaign). The Trailer was towed to Germiston where it was left and then detonated in Odendaal Street near the taxi rank at about 8.45am. Again, civilian by-standers took the toll, 10 people were killed and over 100 injured.
Later in the day on April 25 at 11.45am, a pipe bomb detonated at a taxi rank on the Westonaria-Carletonville road, injuring 5 people. Earlier, at about 7.45am, a pipe bomb went off at a taxi rank on the corner of Third and Park streets in Randfontein, injuring 6 people. At 8.30pm on the same day, a pipe bomb attack at a restaurant on the corner of Bloed Street and 7th Avenue in Pretoria killed 3 and injured 4.
To prevent more bomb-blasts in Johannesburg’s city centre on the election day and the lead up to it, Johannesburg’s city centre was locked down by the SADF using reams of razor wire and armed guards. The election booths themselves in the high-density parts of the city became small fortresses with a heavy armed SADF presence, all done so people in the city centre could vote in the full knowledge they were safe to do so.
Then, just two short days later, on the Election Day itself, 27th April 1994 the final AWB election bombing campaign attack came in the form of a car bomb at the then Jan Smuts International Airport (now OR Tambo International). The bomb was placed at this high-profile target so as to create fear on the Election Day itself. The blast left the concourse outside the airport’s International Departures terminal damaged along with a number of parked vehicles on the concourse. Ten people were injured in this blast. If the AWB was going to make an international statement on their objection to the 1994 Election Day itself, this was it.
Images: AWB Jan Smuts Airport Bombing
To try and understand my context, this was violence in the ‘white danger’ context of the ‘Struggle’ it was on top of such a general surge of violence at the time I was serving that was the ‘black danger’, the townships of Johannesburg burned as the IFP and ANC went at one another hammer and tongs leaving thousands dead and wounded. The Human Rights Committee (HRC) estimated that between July 1990 and June 1993, some 4 756 people were killed in politically in mainly IFP and ANC related violence in Gauteng alone. In the period immediately following the announcement of an election date, the death toll in Gauteng rose to four times its previous levels.
Armed ANC, APLA and IFP driven unrest in Johannesburg Townships 1994
I often look at the SADF conscripts from this period – the post 1989 intakes, as having more violent exposure than the majority of SADF veterans called up for the Border War which ended in 1989. Our experience ‘the post 1989 intakes’ was fundamentally different to that experienced by the Border War veterans who stopped doing camps after 1989, and I stand by that. I see this difference in old SADF social media groups especially, if a Border War vet posts a picture showing the war against the MPLA and PLAN prior to 1989 that’s fine, post a picture of the elections showing the AWB mobilising or the MK amalgamation in 1994 and its too ‘political’ for them – our war doesn’t count, it’s all a little too ‘blurred’ for them – no clear cut Rooi-Gevaar and Swart-Gevaar see – no clear cut ‘enemy’, it just doesn’t make sense to them.
The elections, as we all know went ahead, history marched on, but I must smile at the inconvenient truth of it all, it was the SADF, and more specifically the white conscripts serving their camp commitments, who brought the final vehicle of full democracy to South Africa – the vote itself. There was not an ANC MK cadre in sight at the election doing any sort of security, they played no role whatsoever, in fact at the time they were part of the problem and not part of the solution, and their efforts in the NPK deemed too inexperienced, so they were sidelined. The ANC and PAC military wings fell at the last hurdle, they didn’t make it over the finish line of Apartheid bathed in glory, in fact they came over the line a bloody disgrace. To watch them in their misguided sense of heroism today just brings up a wry smile from me.
Integrated Military Intakes
Later in 1994, as a Mustering Depot, we naturally became involved in implementing the newly developed ‘Voluntary Military Service’ program. This was the first multi-racial intake of male and female SANDF recruits. The Voluntary Military System (VMS) was originally established as a substitute for the defunct ‘whites only’ involuntary national service system (NS) and the ‘Indian’ and ‘coloured’ voluntary national service. Also, out the window where the ethnic intakes into ‘Black’ battalions.
In terms of the VMS, volunteers had to undergo ten months basic military training, followed by a further obligation of eight annual commitments of 30 days in the Regiments and Commandos (the Reservist Conventional Forces). The objective was to create a feeder system for the Reservist Conventional forces and eventually balance the ethnic make-up of Reservist Regiments (up to this point they were a near ‘all-white’ affair with black troops and officers gradually joining them).
Our first VMS intake at Nasrec in early January 1995 was historic and very telling. In 15 RCD, some of our battle hardened and experienced escorts had to re-programmed a little. We introduced a policy of minimal force, we were no longer at war and we had to change mindset. We replaced our pre-intake shooting range manoeuvres with ‘hand to hand’ self-defence training instead. The photo on this article shows our escorts getting this training – it was very necessary and vital, times had changed.
Image: 15 RCD Hand to Hand Training NASREC – My photo.
Our intelligence had picked up chatter that the local ANC structures planned to disrupt the intake by spreading the word that the army was now employing – ‘Jobs’, ‘Jobs’, Jobs’ after all was an ANC election promise in 1994 and this a first opportunity for delivery on their promise, you merely had to turn up at Nasrec and a ‘job in the defence’ was yours. Anyone with a brain knows a political party cannot promise jobs, an economy creates jobs – but this did not (and still does not) deter the ANC on trying to fulfil their own propaganda.
And so it happened, two sets of people turned up, one set with ‘call-up’ papers, vetted by the military before mustering and one set, just turning up. The job seekers naturally started to get very upset, angry and uneasy with being turned away and a potentially violent situation began to brew with a large and growingly angry crowd. A couple of other officers and I were called to the situation, and it suddenly occurred to me, as comic as it is serious, that the 9mm Star pistol issued to me was a piece of shit and one of the two issued magazines had a faulty spring – so pretty useless if things go south – and angry crowds for whatever reason in South Africa, even lack of electricity or a delayed train, can get very violent. So much for Denel’s (Armscor) best, but the SADF was like that when it came to issuing weapons and ammo – uber self-confident, during my basic training at 5 SAI and Junior Leaders (JL’s) training at Voortrekkerhoogte, the standard operation procedure (SOP) was only 5 rounds (bullets) per guard – I often wonder how MK would have reacted if their Intel knew just how underprepared and over-confident the SADF was sometimes.
Images: NASREC response, 1995 VMS Intake: My photos
We got to the ‘flashpoint’, and to this day I can kiss Staff Sergeant Diesel, who jumped up onto a Mamba Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), two of which had been brought up, grabbed a loud hailer an told them calmly to go to Wit Command and then he quickly handed out a stack of application forms. His mannerism as a larger-than-life guy and likeability as a person immediately diffusing the situation as they all set off – either home or to Wit Command armed with the correct information.
The intake went on without any further incidence and I have the privilege of having the only photographs of this historic day. I asked VMS recruits what their expectations where, for many ‘white’ VMS recruits their parents (and fathers specifically) wanted them to have the military discipline and camaraderie they had experienced in the old SADF as a life purpose, the ‘black’ VMS recruits were different, they immediately wanted to sign up as permanent force members and make the military a full-time career – they saw the VMS system as a ‘In’.
The First Multiracial Intake: My Photos – Peter Dickens copyright
The VMS system of mustering also went ahead for the first multi-racial female intake, so as to address the balance of female personnel and officers, black and white in the Reserve forces, again I was proud to be involved in that ‘call up’ and again hold the only historic pictures of it. However, again, the general sense that I picked up was these women were holding out for full time military careers, but nevertheless it was critical that militarily trained females were sorely in need to modernise the South African military.
First Integrated Female Intake circa 1998: My Photos – Peter Dickens copyright
For the latter reason, the objective of the VMS was not initially met, many VMS service personnel, after doing their basic training, were in fact able to secure these permanent force contracts as the force experienced a contraction of trained personnel after 1994 and the VMS personnel proved an easy and trained recruiting pool. By 2006 the VMS system had all but served its role and was disbanded, the Reserve Force Regiments would recruit directly under a newly constructed training programme, and with that came the bigger changes that integration required.
Also, I don’t really want to hear the ‘it was the beginning of the end’ bit so many vets now feel, the SADF had to change, ‘whites only’ conscription had to change and Apartheid as an ideology was simply unsustainable and had to go. The SADF had to change – dividing units on colour and ethnicity was not practical, segregation had fallen on evil days to quote Field Marshal Jan Smuts. The Defence Force had to become reflective of the country at large – the extreme lack of Black African commissioned officers in 1994, in an African Defence Force nogal, was alone reflective of a system of extreme racial bias.
SANDF VMS Intake circa 1997, my photos
Remember, in 1994 nobody could predict the future, many held a belief that structured and balanced politics would happen, the Mandela Magic was everywhere, from 1990 to 1994 the violence was extreme and as a nation we had narrowly skirted ‘the abyss’ with a miracle settlement. In 1994, nobody foresaw Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s pilfering of the state from 2009, nor did they see the ANC’s extreme restructuring of the SANDF in their likeness, the ‘rot’ starting as early as 1999 when General Georg Meiring, a SADF stalwart and now the Chief of the SANDF, was dismissed on trumpeted up allegations of presenting a false coupe, making way for General Siphiwe Nyanda, a ANC MK cadre whose subsequent career as Jacob Zuma’s Communications Minister is a corruption riddled disgrace.
The MK Intake – 1994 to 1996
Finally on the 1994 line-up, the amalgamation of the Defence Structures with non-statute forces, the ‘Swart Gevaar’ terrorists. From 1994, 15 Reception Depot became involved to a degree with the mustering of ANC and PAC political armies into the newly SANDF. At this stage I was a SSO3 (Senior Staff Officer 3IC) at 15 Reception Depot and had the privilege to work closely with Sergeant Major Cyril Lane Blake, the unit’s Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who had been involved with the non-statutory force intake from an Intelligence standpoint. Mustering of MK and APLA took place at Personnel Services School, a military base in Voortrekkerhoogte and at Wallmannstal military base, many of these MK members were then destined to go to De Brug army base for training and integration.
Of interest was the intake itself, of the ANC Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) veterans, only half of them really qualified as trained soldiers, these were the MK members trained overseas – mainly in Angola, they were made up mainly of the old cadres (old guard) of Mandela’s period, trained by the ex-WW2 veterans like Joe Slovo, and they were recruited to MK after the Sharpeville Massacre (a very small contingent) and then the Seventy Sixes (the big contingent), those who were recruited after the 1976 Riots, added to this was a trickle from the 1980’s riots who made it to their Angolan training camps. Out of 32,000 odd MK veterans, there were only about 12,000 MK veterans who were accepted as proper military veterans (about half of them), the rest were ‘stone throwers’ (as some sarcastically called them) recruited rapidly into the ANC MK ranks in 1990 the very minute they were ‘unbanned’ and they just constituted political dissidents with little military experience if any and no formalised military training whatsoever.
Images: MK Intake into the SANDF issued with old SADF ‘Browns’ – Copyright Reuters, RSM Cyril Lane-Blake, my photo and finally ANC supporters appearing in ‘uniform’ as MK at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.
Of the ‘Untrained’ MK veterans, many of these were the ‘MK’ cadres from the so called ‘self-defence units’ in the townships who had regularly gone about holding ‘peoples courts’ and sentencing people to death with ‘necklaces’ (placing a car tyre around the persons neck, dousing it in petrol and setting it alight).
Also, but not unsurprisingly there were MK ‘chances’ – people joining the intake pretending to be MK so they could get a ‘job in the defence’, BMATT (British Military Advisory Training Team), the British Military task force assigned to the integration, and even the ‘proper’ MK cadres themselves, had a heck of a job trying to identify these chance takers, and a great many ‘slipped’ through with falsified CV’s.
This would later result in what BMATT politely called a ‘hardening of attitudes’ in their report to Parliament, when it come to the way statutory force members viewed these ‘non-statutory’ force members and MK generally, an attitude which in my opinion is getting ‘even harder’ as the years go on as some of these MK vets really show their colours to all of South Africa – involved in corrupt and outright criminal behaviour, degenerating and demeaning themselves, their organisation and their ‘victory’ now well tarnished.
What amazed me was just how structured the MK was when it came to the their proper military veterans, I had been conditioned by the SADF that they were a rag-tag outfit and incompetent at best, but that wasn’t completely true, they had a highly structured command and very defined specialised units ranging from a Chief of Staff, Operations, Ordnance, Intelligence, Engineering, Anti-Aircraft, Artillery to Counter Intelligence/Communications (propaganda), and attached to nearly to all of it was a very detailed Soviet styled military Political Commissar structure. They even had unit designations, and many out of the half of them that had been trained, had decent military training.
I don’t want to get to the Pan African Congress’ APLA veterans, I was told they generally treated their SADF escorts with utter disdain.
Their problem (MK and APLA) is that they were asked to identify and verify all their members for their military credentials, and they quickly pointed out who was and who was not a trained military veteran, and this caused the huge division in the MK veteran structures we see today. The split of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) and the MK Council recently is a case in point – the MK Council are the ones with the military ‘struggle’ credentials and the MKMVA have all the members who do not have any meaningful military ‘struggle’ credentials at all, they’ve all joined Jacob Zuma’s RET hence the reason the current ANC no longer wants to recognise them.
This makes me laugh uncontrollably when the MKMVA used to wheel out Carl Niehaus in his purchased PEP store MK camouflage fatigues pretending to be a military veteran, when in truth he is anything but one, and it makes me cry when the Department of Military Veterans squander all their time and money on the 12,000 odd MK ‘non-veterans’ trying to give them and their families un-earned veteran benefits and bring harmony to the ANC and they almost completely ignore their primary mandate – the 500,000 odd statutory force veterans, proper military veterans – solely because many of them (the majority mind) served in the old SADF and of that a great majority where conscripts.
In 1999, I was assigned to escort Joe Modise, the ex MK Commander in Chief, and Paratus (the SADF/SANDF) mouthpiece published it, yes, I admit it – I even shook his hand (we’ll there is a published photo to prove it – so no point hiding the fact), but again, at this stage in the SANDF we were still confident in the country, little did I know he would be dead two years later and embroiled in yet another ANC corruption and arms buying controversy. I did some more VMS work after that, but that signalled the beginning of the end of my service, reception depots had outgrown their use after 2002 and mothballed – in fact they are still mothballed, waiting for the day to muster the general populace in the event the country goes to war again.
Image: Joe Modise and myself – Peter Dickens copyright
Oh, and if this sounds a bit personal, it is, here’s a big “Fuck You” middle finger to the politically motivated pressure groups in ANC led government departments currently trying to delist the old SADF ‘conscripts’ as military veterans on the basis that they ‘served Apartheid’ and not recognising their role in bringing democracy to South Africa, whereas their ‘heroes’ in MK did. The historic record stands, there’s no changing it and as things go even this missive is now primary documentation for future generations of South Africans to read and assimilate – from someone ‘who was there’ and is a genuine ‘military veteran’ – true reconciliation comes with facing the truth comrades, just saying.
Back to PTSD
So, enough to do with the ANC and their Parliament of Clowns, the old ‘Swart Gevaar’ fast becoming a newly reinvigorated ‘Swart Gevaar’ of their own making and back to the serious stuff and all the ‘Wit Gevaar and Swart Gevaar’ from 1990 to 1994 forming my general mental mistrust of just about everything.
Whilst in hospital with Covid I had a psychological mistrust of efforts been made by Doctors, Nurses and medical assistants (Black and White), I was convinced they were out to kill me and efforts to pump lifesaving high pressure oxygen into me were met with an unnatural resistance and a self-induced gag reflex. To give you an idea of how bad this ‘mistrust’ was, if personnel so much as tried to ‘turn’ me to change bedding or wash me I would go into a panic attack, which resulted in rapid rapid thoracic breathing upsetting my body’s oxygen levels to the point of oxygen starvation and renal nerve release (I’d literally piss myself) – a simple ‘turn’ would become a life and death matter – and nobody could make sense of it, me included. So, in desperation .. enter stage right … the hospital Psychologist … and stage left my lifelong confidant, a solid Free State ‘Bittereinder Boertjie’ with the mental tenacity of a Ratel (an African Honey Badger) … my wife.
To define and understand PTSD, as it’s a much-brandished word nowadays with anyone having experienced a high stress incident claiming it, many using it as an excuse. PTSD is best explained a stressor bucket in your head, you’re born with it and its empty. In life stressful events are sometimes internalised and start to fill your bucket, your bucket usually makes it underfilled to the end of your life and you don’t have a mental meltdown and things make sense and you’re stable, the bucket is very resilient. What happens to military personnel especially is that the stressors they experience are often far beyond normal and it fills the bucket up at an early stage, right up to the ‘nearly full’ mark in some extreme cases, after some significant stressors are added to it later in life, anything really but usually the D’s – Disease, Debt, Divorce and Death. For Military veterans these ‘D’s’ can then ‘tip’ the bucket over and you start to psychologically have a meltdown. This is the reason why PTSD is gradually becoming more and more apparent in ex-SADF conscripts and PF members as they get older.
In extreme cases in the military, you can have that meltdown whilst serving, the old battle fatigue syndrome, repeated life and death experiences unrelentingly occurring end on end filling up the stressor bucket and finally your last one tips the bucket, produces meltdown and you’re withdrawn from the line. Refer to Spike Milligan’s autobiography ‘Mussolini, his part in my downfall’ of his time as a gunner in WW2 and you’ll see how this plays out in a serving combatant.
In therapy trying to get to the bottom on what initially filled my bucket up, and on this the Psychologist and my wife and I settled on ‘mistrust’ initially rooted deep in in my psyche whilst I was in the Army. Mistrust as I could not distinguish foe from friend, ‘swart gevaar from wit gevaar,’ and to me everyone was a ‘enemy’ – that enemy or ‘gevaar’ now included most hospital staff – black and white, and I was the only one who could fight my way out – no help required thanks.
To say my Covid condition was bad and a PTSD issue on its own would be an understatement, I had even died to be brought back with CPR on one occasion and knocked on the Pearly Gates a great deal more with more near death experiences than I can shake a stick at. I was intubated on a ventilator and placed in an induced coma for a full month. This was followed up with two collapsed lungs and a battery of deadly infections, two serious bouts of bronchitis and then bronchial pneumonia. To my knowledge, I walked into history as one of a mere handful of Covid patients to survive the disease with the number of infections and complications I had – 4 months in ICU, 2 months in High Care and another 2 months of Step Down therapy as I even had to learn to simply take a shit in a toilet and even walk again – a total of 8 months spent in hospital and a further 4 months as a oxygen supplement dependent outpatient, before been given an ‘all clear’ a full year later and taken off all drugs and supplemental oxygen.
This is pretty big story for another day, and a lot of people are very intrigued by it, so I am writing a book on it called ‘I’m not dead yet’ – my dark military sense of humour aside, do look out for it.
Images: Me recovering from a coma, giving my best army ‘salute’ just before both lungs collapsed and me sitting up for the first time once lungs drains were removed – copyright Peter Dickens
It took all that to ‘tip my stressor bucket’ – and no doubt I had a massive life and death fight on my hands, but I would have to say this in all honesty, I was substantially compromised by a latent mistrust I picked up as a young man in the Army, especially in 1990. Unlocking that, helped unlock the gag reflexes, which unlocked the fear and ultimately set me on a journey to a healthy recovery – physically and mentally.
Many years after my service, a fellow military veteran, Norman Sander (and ex Sergeant Major in the Natal Carabineers) and I had lunch in London with an ex-BMATT officer, Colonel Paul Davis who had been involved in the South African Forces integration and at one stage headed up the BMATT delegation. He said something interesting, according to the Colonel, the South African Defence Force training modules where draconian at best and styled on the old Nazi Waffen SS model, which demanded absolute iron cast discipline, absolute obedience and absolute goal driven determination to function across multiple voluntary and conscripted outfits often ethnically separated. Notwithstanding his view, I’ve attested to this before, had I not undergone this “draconian” training as an SADF officer I would not have survived my Covid experience, no matter how bad it got I knew I had more in the tank, I’d pushed these limits whilst ‘pissing blood for my pips’ in the SADF as a young man and understood my breaking point from a early age, without this intrinsic knowledge and iron cast focus I would be dead, of that there is absolutely no doubt.
My Commission signed by President F.W. de Klerk, one of his last acts of office
Now, I’m no ‘Grensvegter’ (Border Warrior), I’m a simple pen pusher, my service pales into insignificance compared to a great many veterans, many I’ve had the privilege to serve with, true soldiers fighting a brutal war in a brutal manner. Nope, I’m not one of those, and nor can I ever be, and nor do I pretend to be, to them the kudos of valour and I mean it.
Here’s a simple thought on my time as a Military Conscript and then a Volunteer, this quote from Czech author Milan Kundera and it resonates with me the most;
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
What this means to us SADF conscripts turned volunteers in 1994, we were on a journey, a ‘struggle’ if you will, to take our fellow citizens out of political oppression into political emancipation and liberty. If we forget our stories in this great struggle, discard them as irrelevant because we are no longer politically convenient, vanquished as ‘SADF’ baby killing monsters, and passed over as fighting for some sort of WOKE idea of ‘white privilege’ – if we don’t resist this and choose ‘forgetting’ instead, then we ultimately betray ourselves, we’ve lost.
On PTSD, it’s manageable for most, but you must get to those internalised ‘stressors’ and truly understand what they are and what caused them. Un-internalising the stressors is a first big step to ridding yourself of PTSD, and that’s why I can say in all honesty I’m happy and stable.
So, I thank all you who have made it to this last part of my ‘story,’ it really is a simple soldier’s small tale with a great deal of political ‘struggle’, and I really hope you’ve picked up some interesting historical snippets on the way, especially the ones which are not really in the broad ANC narrative today of ‘the struggle’ leading to 1994. The ‘truth’ will eventually ‘out’ and I sincerely believe that, and I believe its cathartic and from a cognitive therapy perspective a very necessary ‘out’.
A memoir: By Capt. Peter Albert Dickens (Happily Retired)
So here’s to the second million Dad! Thank you all who support this education website and blog, the past year has been tough, I was hospitalised with Covid 19 for 8 months (yup – read that again, eight friggin months and given a 1% chance of survival), so I am deeply appreciated that despite the inactivity for nearly a year the site continued to grow and continued to receive substantial support. The good news, I survived Covid (a little bent, but not broken) against all odds and I’m back on it like a bonnet.
I started this blog in November 2015 after my father’s death in Hermanus, South Africa – fondly known as ‘Professor Dickens’ to many locals (he was a visiting Prof at UCT), in a way it is a homage to the library of military history books he left to me to reference, his passion for the subject and it was really set up in his memory.
In my small way I wanted to capture the joint passion for the subject we both felt, debated and endlessly discussed over a glass of whiskey – very often overlooking Schulphoek bay from his art gallery surrounded by all his military aviation and maritime artworks.
The work in essence was a cathartic experience for me at the difficult time of my Dad’s death as it gave vent to all the knowledge and nuggets of South Africa’s military history imparted to me or inspired by my Dad, and I’m extremely happy to share all his legacy, he would have been pleased as punch with it – there are now 358 stories published, 58 stories currently been ‘polished’ waiting, and in my noggin there are at least 200 more stories waiting to out.
It has been an experiment to use this type of media for blogging history, much to the horror of some historians, as by nature social media lends itself to social interaction and opinion, so no, there are no stuffy footnotes and cross reference numbering you would expect in a history treatise, such an approach defeats the type of media used. What this form of modern communication and media does is drive interest into a subject normally discarded as boring, it rejuvenates dull date driven historical humdrum and creates conversation through sharing and interaction.
I’ve been taken aside by some historians and criticised – too much ‘factor analysis’, too much ‘causal history’, too heavy on ‘opinion’, too ‘open ended’, too much individualistic ‘writing style’, too many spelling errors etc etc, my response often is that their traditional papers and publications have reached a couple of thousand people at best, mine have reached a couple of million .. that is the power of modern internet based social media and that is the future, like it or not, and this is how it works – bite sized content drivers using enticing thought and conversation triggers. Other historian friends of mine are loving it, in fact many are a little envious, and thankfully I am now getting some serious support in key circles – academic departments at leading universities and recognised national history societies in South Africa have started to give this site (and me) a nod. I’m also getting a large dollop of encouragement from some heavy weight history academics now, especially those specialising in military history.
Funnily, the approach I use I learned whilst majoring in History at Rhodes University, basically taking ‘political’ history (which most of us learn at school) and challenging it using ‘economic history’ (and its internalised disruptor – ‘feakonomics’) and ‘social’ history in addition to draw new understanding and interesting insight. Sometimes it can make for a really fun read as it can take an old dusty ‘fact’ which everyone thinks is fully concluded and suddenly it’s on its head.
Both my Dad and I were Marketing people in our time and The Observation Post can now be found in multimedia, it has a blog with an e-mail subscription, a linked Facebook ‘Page’ (just click like and click the prompts to follow it), a linked Twitter account and even a Facebook ‘Group’ discussion forum were you can interact with me directly and share your own interesting historical nuggets with like-minded people.
Aside from my Dad, ‘Thanks a Million’ … again …. to you, all the avid followers of the blog, the readers of the material, it’s your support which keeps it going and it’s your feedback that motivates me to bring more historical nuggets so often gleaned over, written out of the school history books and ignored for political expediency in South Africa.
Book Review: Jan Smuts and his First World War (1914-1917) by David Brock Katz
Finally, a refreshing new look at Jan Smuts, and not a popularist novel, a proper historical treatise, so well researched it stands up to strong academic scrutiny and it will stand for some time to come.
Jan Smuts and his First World War 1914-1917 by Dr David Bock Katz is a revelation, it seeks out and finds Smuts’ essence in his military campaigning, not previously achieved by earlier historians.
It can often be said of Jan Smuts, that a Canadian student will have a better understanding of the man than a South African one. That is because Smuts has been vilified in his own country by an endless tirade of politically driven one-upmanship whether it be from far right or the far left of the political spectrum, an unabated tirade, especially from a very small but very vocal white Afrikaner right fuelled with propaganda and unhinged over the Apartheid epoch. Whereas internationally he is seen as a champion of global peace post both World Wars and a founder of the United Nations, he still stands on Parliament Square in London and in Canada even a mountain is named after him.
The political quagmire surrounding Smuts makes a new study of Smuts very difficult, the historian must ‘peel the onion’ and discard all the politically inspirated bias. Bill Nasson, one of South Africa’s most respected historians said the only way for us to understand Jan Smuts is to understand what he amounted to and to define Smuts’ essence, i.e., get to what he is all about, what made him tick and identify what he was always striving toward. Happy to report that Dr David Katz in his new book on Jan Smuts and his First World War 1914–1917 does exactly that.
Smuts was born and lived in an era of colonial expansionism, an era where Imperialism was normative and in fact a value for which European’s fought over in great life and death struggles, in Europe and across the Globe. David Katz examines Smuts in his context and removes the urge to suddenly apply a modern critical race theory bias. In doing this Katz gets to the essence of the man. He does this by drawing attention to Smuts’ plans for a ‘Greater South Africa’ one in which South Africa’s borders are drawn as high as the equator including south Angola, bits of modern day Central African Republic and the entire states of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. This idea of ‘sphere of influence’ whether under the control of an Afrikaner or a British ideal on the back of conquest and expansion, is central to ‘white’ politics of Southern Africa, pre and post The South African War (1899-1902).
A ‘man of his time’, Smuts’ philosophy of holism, basically the sum (union) of parts is greater than the whole, drives Smuts’ ideal for the union of nation states, not only South Africa as we know it, but also Southern Africa with his plans of a ‘Greater South Africa’, his concept of ‘union’ eventually extends globally with the establishment of the British Commonwealth, the League of Nations and its modern-day manifestation, the United Nations. Here, as David Katz shows extensively and rather refreshingly in his work, we see the true ‘essence’ of Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, South Africa’s most decorated General.
It also gives us the context for the Union of South Africa’s eagerness to move its borders northwards, the First World War provided both Louis Botha and Jan Smuts with the ideal vehicle, starting with the German South West African campaign (GSWA) and then the German East Africa campaign (GEA).
In these campaigns David Katz starts to shake up some preconceived beliefs about Smuts’ abilities as a General, detailing and outlining his abilities to strategise outcomes and also his ability to tactically apply them. Many commentators and historians chose to highly criticise Smuts, but usually in the context of political expediency, both in the United Kingdom and in South Africa, but here Katz exposes their ‘bias’ and even at times exposes some blatant mistruths previously held up as fact, he does this by examining the ‘primary documentation’, the boring, dusty, daunting, and rather vital extensive archives – here in South Africa and in the United Kingdom. In this primary documentation, without a political agenda, he finds the real Smuts, a true reflection of the military strategist and field commander. David’s work in this respect is extensive, it was the backbone of his Doctorate in Military History (cum laude), and it shows.
It is almost impossible to write a ‘complete’ history on Smuts in a single book, he was a man who dominated South African politics from 1890 to 1950, seven decades which see a man and his outlook change over time along with changing world orders and philosophies of governance and even warfare. This can make the subject of Smuts extremely daunting, and even impossible – where do you start, Smuts the academic, the philosopher, the botanist, the lawyer, the author, the politician, the stateman, the peacemaker, the privy councillor and finally Smuts the miliary General?
It is with some relief that David Katz hones in on only one aspect, Smuts’ First World War, it gives him the opportunity to really challenge Smuts in one sector of his life, the outcome of which is a detailed account of this one facet which reaches completely new conclusions and views.
Rightly in establishing a view on Smuts’ Generalship in World War 1, Katz also looks at the root of Smuts’ abilities as a General, forged in the South African War (1899-1902) under General Koos de la Rey and General Louis Botha. Katz then examines the complexities and challenges facing Smuts in amalgamating Colonial British and Boer Forces into a unified fighting entity and the development of a distinctively South African ‘style’ of combat fighting, a manoeuvrability ‘style’ which even our modern-day defence force still holds as a central doctrine.
Katz also reviews the Maritz Rebellion of 1914 in its correct context, as an opening act of internal aggression in South Africa’s First World War and how it strategically and even morally affected the GSWA campaign. Also, refreshingly he focusses on the cause and effect of the revolt militarily speaking and is not guided by the political fallout and resultant bias in examining Smuts’ ability as a wartime General.
Smuts’ GEA campaign often comes in for a lot of criticism, and here Katz again applies a military mind and scours the primary source material in evaluating Smuts’ effectiveness as a General, reasoning that Smuts effectively attained his objectives, reduced casualties and delivered an Allied victory and didn’t chase General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck around aimlessly as has been suggested by past historians.
It’s a very long overdue re-assessment of Jan Smuts and his ability as a General. David Katz also wrote a book called ‘South Africans versus Rommel’ which covers Smuts in World War 2 to a degree, but we look forward to the next historical account which looks at Smuts and his Second World War 1939-1945 in its complete entity, as the next ‘bite sized’ chunk of this most extraordinary man.
In the end, the Afrikaner National Party and their opposition rhetoric aside, we may find that when it is all added together, Smuts’ 2nd Anglo-Boer War command, his First World War command, his Second World War Command, and Smuts’ net success in all three of these wars, his structure of South Africa’s defence force and doctrine, his pioneering work on structuring air-arms, air combat and air defences, his contribution as part of the British War Cabinet and the Imperial War Cabinet during World War 1 and then again in the King’s Privy Council and as Winston Churchill’s confidant and councillor during World War 2, and even his extensive role in Operation Overlord, all concluding with his role in the establishment of the United Nations, we may very well be looking at a Afrikaner farm boy with one of the greatest military minds of the 20th Century and beyond.
No small statement, you’ll find Jan Smuts’ fingerprints in just about every theatre of operations in the South African War (1899-1902), in the GSWA, GEA and Western Front theatres of World War 1 (1914-1918), and again in the East African, North African, Italy, Atlantic and European campaigns to conclude World War 2 (1939-1945) and in just about every major modern military development in between. Dr David Brock Katz’ book on Jan Smuts First World War (1914-1918) goes a long way to establishing a solid foundation on which to begin to challenge this conclusion or at the very least he gives Smuts a well-earned balanced perspective and insight.
Join me for the launch of Dr. David Brock Katz’s new book, ‘General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914 -1917′. David will be spending a little time in my hometown, Hermanus to launch this new look at Jan Smuts’ military campaign and leadership during WW1.
We will do the launch at Romantiques in Hermanus, in their cosy little theatre. David and I have agreed to do a joint talk on Jan Smuts, David will focus on Smuts in the context of his book and I will focus on Smuts – the man and his flawed genius. In all it should be a great evening for anyone who is either a student of history or has a fascination for one of Africa’s greatest sons.
We will follow up the talk with a book signing ceremony with complimentary Beer, Wine and Canapés. As a brewery owner my Company ‘The Spirit of Hermanus’ and our beer brand ‘Old Tin Hat’ will be sponsoring, along with Jonathan Ball Publishes and the venue – Romantiques. Book Mark, the appointed retailer of the book in Hermnaus will also be on hand.
For a small fee of R40 you can also stay on for a screening of Peter Jackson’s world renowned documentary on World War 1, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.
For those in area who wish to attend here are the details:
Date: Friday 16th September 2022
Arrive from 17:00 for 17:30
Talk and Q&A from 17:30 to 18:30
Book Signing, Beer and Wine Evening from 18:30 to 19:30
Movie Screening ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ from 19:30 to 21:00
Romantiques, 18A Aberdeen Street, Hermanus, South Africa
Please note spaces are very limited, so be sure to book early.
Outline of the book
As to this new book and exciting look at Smuts’ Generalship during WW1 it has been described a ‘an engaging, well-written and meticulously researchedmilitary biography …’ – Tim Stapleton, Professor, Department of History, University of Calgary.
Jan Smuts grabbed the opportunity to realise his ambition of a Greater South Africa when the First World War ushered in a final scramble for Africa. He set his sights firmly northward upon the German colonies of South West Africa and East Africa. Smuts’s abilities as a general have been much denigrated by his contemporaries and later historians, but he was no armchair soldier. He first learned his soldier’s craft under General Koos de la Rey and General Louis Botha during the South African War (1899−1902). He emerged from that conflict immersed in Boer manoeuvre doctrine.
Jan Smuts grabbed the opportunity to realise his ambition of a Greater South Africa when the First World War ushered in a final scramble for Africa. He set his sights firmly northward upon the German colonies of South West Africa and East Africa. Smuts’s abilities as a general have been much denigrated by his contemporaries and later historians, but he was no armchair soldier. He first learned his soldier’s craft under General Koos de la Rey and General Louis Botha during the South African War (1899−1902). He emerged from that conflict immersed in Boer manoeuvre doctrine.
After forming the Union Defence Force in 1912, Smuts played an integral part in the German South West African campaign in 1915. Placed in command of the Allied forces in East Africa in 1916, he led a mixed bag of South Africans and imperial troops against the legendary Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Schutztruppen. His penchant for manoeuvre warfare and mounted infantry freed most of the vast German territory from Lettow-Vorbeck’s grip.
General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa provides a long-overdue reassessment of Smuts’s generalship and his role in furthering the strategic aims of South Africa and the British Empire during this era.
A little on the Author
DAVID BROCK KATZ is an author and historian, wholectures at the Army and Defence Colleges of the South African National Defence Force.
He completed his MMil in Military History (cum laude) and a PhD in Military Science in the Department of Military History at the Faculty of Military Science of Stellenbosch University. He is also research fellow at the Faculty of Military Science and an active member of the Andrew Mlangeni Regiment (formerly the South African Irish Regiment). Katz is the author of South Africans vs Rommel (2019).
If you are unable to attend the launch and want this book you can obtain it on-line from amazon, takealot, Loot to Exclusive Books and more. Shop and just click on the appropriate book seller than can provide it to you.
Here we like to keep those little inconvenient truths alive and put out a little perspective, this time on the fury around death penalty ‘executions’ during the Apartheid epoch. However this time we look at the ‘other side’ of the general narrative surrounding this subject, this looks at the ANC and their use of the death penalty.
On the 22nd August in 1996, seeking amnesty for its human rights abuses, the African National Congress (ANC) dropped a bombshell when it presents the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with a 300-page analysis documenting the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) armed wing’s abuses during ‘the struggle’ period.
The document named thirty-four (34) ANC members who were executed by ANC military tribunals at their external MK bases in Angola. That’s more ANC cadre’s officially executed by their own hand than the Apartheid state managed to officially execute – almost three times as many … think about that!
What where these executions for? Most of them where cited as mutiny, murder and rape in Angola between 1980 and 1989.
As to ‘Mutiny’ Thabo Mbeki told the TRC that a serious mutiny broke out in Pango in 1984 with the MK mutineers using machine-guns and other heavy weapons to kill the camp commanders and other MK soldiers. A military tribunal was set up by the ANC’s national executive committee and 7 MK cadres who shot other cadres were given the death penalty and executed.
There were also isolated cases in which MK recruits were executed by MK after they were tried and convicted of crimes such as raping and murdering local villagers. Examples of this;
Thabo Makhubethe was found guilty of raping an Angolan woman. A MK military tribunal ordered that he be executed by firing squad. The sentence was carried out in 1984 in Luanda. In another case, Josiah Malhobane and Jeremiah Maleka indulged in heavy drinking in Milange randomly shot at shoppers at a local market, killing two Angolan women and seriously injuring another woman and child. They were executed by a MK firing squad in 1989 at Milange.
As to South African law and the ‘Apartheid’ state, no capital punishment was executed by any SADF military tribunal under ‘military law’ during the ‘struggle’ years. In terms of the Apartheid state and civilian law, a case of ‘murder’ had to be proven before a death sentence given – it’s why so many ANC cadres were given life sentences for high treason and not death sentences, it’s also the reason why relatively few MK cadres were executed by the state’s judiciary. In all the state officially executed 14 ANC and MK cadres, they were:
In 1964 and 1965, 6 MK men were executed – Vuvisile Mini, Wilson Khayinga, Zinkile Mkhaba, Daniel Ndongeni, Nolani Mpentse and Samual Jonas for the murder of a civilian who they alleged was a police informer and other killings.
In 1977, MK cadre, Solomon Mahlangu was executed for the murder of two innocent John Orr store employees during a shoot out with Police.
In 1983, MK cadres, Marcus Motaung, Jerry Mosololi and Simon Mogoerane (also known as the Moroka Three)– were executed by the state for attacks on Police stations and the murder of 4 Policemen.
In 1985, Benjamin Moloise, a poet and ANC activist (not MK) was executed for allegedly murdering a Policeman.
In 1986 MK cadre, Andrew Zondo was executed for placing a bomb at a shopping centre in Amanzimtoti which killed two adults and three children and injuring 161 other civilians. Alongside him two other ANC members were executed, Sipho Xulu and Clarence Payi – for murdering a famous ANC underground operative Ben Langa who they accused of being a government informer.
The last MK person to be hanged by the state was Jeffrey Boesman Mangena in 1989 for murdering a school teacher he accused of being a sellout.
There is also a thick irony in that the international community – including the United Nations, numerous civic organisations and even the ANC themselves called on the Apartheid State to remove the death penalty as unjust and save their comrades, at the same time the ANC was implementing the death penalty with impunity, free of any legal oversight to make their own rules and with no international or civic backlash whatsoever.
This is not a tit for tat saying – look at ANC they’re bad and the old Afrikaner nationalist government is ‘good’ – its not to say the Apartheid government didn’t kill, certainly by way of ‘execution’ many more MK cadres were killed. However these murderous ‘executions’ were done by clandestine organs of state operating outside the law in many instances – the military’s CCB ‘Civil Co-operation Bureau’ and the Vlakplaas C1 unit of the ‘Police Security Branch’ to name just two. The ANC in turn executed many civilians using necklacing and other methods under the guise of the MK’s ‘self defence units’ and their ‘peoples courts’ in the townships – unhinged from any legitimate legal oversight or international condemnation again. The net result, under the ruse of ‘Total War’ – both sides in this conflict were equally guilty of many, many transgressions of human rights.
The point, is that the ANC in modern-day South Africa like to see themselves as ‘roses’ in this struggle, they’ve positioned themselves as the ‘darlings’ in the fight for democracy in South Africa, some of these cited MK members executed by the Apartheid state are eternally celebrated in the media almost unrelentingly as national heroes .. and … nothing .. absolute crickets is said of all the MK members executed by their own hand, let alone the execution by MK (outside and inside South Africa) of innocent civilians – no visits to their families by well meaning ANC officials with apologies galore.
The truth is the ANC’s hands are as blood soaked as the old National Party when it comes to human rights abuses, and here’s the inconvenient bit – the old Nats are long gone, and the ANC continue to trample on our civilian rights to this very day as the country’s political elite and governing party; pillaging the state coffers, murdering one another over political appointments and government contracts and the likes of Dlamini-Zuma and Bheki Cele running the country like a Police State.
As to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whether the ‘truth’ ultimately set everyone free, including the ANC and its dire record of capital punishment executions, that can still be debated. However what is certain, as to Zaprio’s cartoon with Desmond Tutu, is that the gap between the ‘truth’ and that of ‘reconciliation’ is growing ever wider in South Africa today.
The big question remains for us as a nation as to who we should highlight as a war hero and who should we not – if not the ANC for helping ‘end’ Apartheid (an ironic case of an organisation steeped in human rights abuses ending a human rights abuser) – then who? To read an article on who and what qualifies war heroes for which we can all celebrate go to the following link; Tainted “Military Heroes” vs. Real Military Heroes
What! No way, where are your meds .. everyone knows the first colonial power to colonise the Cape were the Dutch in 1652 ... not the British. We all have the history of Jan van Riebeeck and his five ships bravely making their way into Table Bay, a landing party of Dutch settlers carrying a Dutch Prinsenvlag (Prince Flag) coming ashore in peace and to trade with a smattering of local Khoikhoi (Hottentots), planting the flag and declaring the region as Dutch.
This painting by Charles Davidson Bell says it all, it depicts the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, first Commander of the Cape, to Table Bay on the 6th April 1652. With the Dutch came a stoic religion and a civilising mind, set to colonise the region and establish a refreshment station, mainly for the Dutch East India Company’s trading ships passing the Cape.
South Africa’s epicentre of its civilising history had begun! The event burned into South African lore by the Nationalists, commemorated for decades and on countless bank notes, statues, emblems of state, the late national flag and postage stamps.
British – 1st attempt
The British were first! … What’s wrong with you? So, here’s a little inconvenient truth. and this next bit reminds me of the Eddie Izzard’s comedy sketch “do you have a flag”. The fact is the British colonised the Cape BEFORE the Dutch, in fact 30 odd years before … to quote Izzard “no flag no country” – huh! You lie! All true I’m afraid, read on.
The first flag to fly over the Cape in a colonising ceremony was NOT the Prinsenvlag, the first flag was that of King James the 1st of England and Scotland – the very first Union Jack (known then as the British Flag without the Ireland inclusion – Ireland was not part of the Union then). The flag was planted on Signal Hill in 1620 – long before the Dutch did it in 1652.
That’s how insanely biased the old Christian Nationalism Education policy was and how much the conscious narrative of the country’s history has become thanks to it. If you think I’m telling ‘Porkies’, look it up for yourself, 27 March 1620 – The HMS Unitie, one of three British ships, arrives in Table Bay from England, a small settlement had already existed there to furnish passing Spanish, British, Portuguese and Dutch traders. Two of the Commanders of these ships, Captain Humphrey Fitzherbert and Captain Andrew Shilling hoist the Union Jack on the slopes of Signal Hill calling it King James Mount and take possession of the entire countryside in the name of the British Monarch. Here they planned a plantation similar to that established by the Virginia Company at Jamestown. The settlement would have provided a revitalising stop on the way to the East for all the British trading ships, mainly the British East India Company.
But nothing came of the plan, it does not seem that King James the 1st acted on it, maybe he was too concerned with uniting England and Scotland at the time, who knows? What we do know is that the British left it to be settled by the Dutch, 32 years later. As historians we don’t really know what the British did with their Colony in intervening years between the two flag planting ceremonies, nobody has really studied it. We do however know it’s been ‘written out’ of the South African narrative – however the good news I can assure you there are now some serious historians ‘on the case’.
But, and this is a BIG but … neither the British, nor the Dutch can really lay claim to be the first European nation to plant a flag under Table mountain, or even the first people to start a trading station in Cape Town. The first European nation to set up trading posts at the Cape where the Portuguese. The truth is the ‘local’ Khoikhoi (the original inhabitants) were not too happy with them and saw them off in two famous instances. In 1503 (over 100 years before the British and the Dutch) Antonio de Saldanha, a Portuguese fleet commander, sailed into Table Bay and then disembarked to follow the freshwater stream to the foot of Table Mountain. During the visit, the Portuguese attempted to barter with the Khoikhoi. It failed and a group of Khoikhoi warriors ambushed the sailors wounding De Saldanha in process.
The Portuguese tried again in 1510 to colonise the Cape when Francis de Almeida the first viceroy of Portuguese Indies sailed into the Table Bay with a fleet in search of fresh water and trade. Some of his crew went to a nearby Khoikhoi settlement in the area around Salt River to trade for cattle and sheep. An armed conflict ensued. The sailors were driven back to their ships.
On hearing of the defeat de Almeida joined in with an armed expedition to deal with the Khoikhoi directly. The Portuguese force was overwhelmed and defeated, leaving 67 Portuguese sailors including de Almeida dead. These conflicts with the Khoikhoi ended any Portuguese aspirations around Table Bay and Colonising it.
As to laying a ‘claim’ the Portuguese did however erect stone crosses (padrão) at prominent points along the coast to proclaim sovereignty of the Portuguese realm by right of discovery. Dias erected his first cross on Dias Point (since renamed Lüderitzbucht in what is now Namibia),and at Kwaaihoek on the easternmost limit of Algoa Bay and on his return voyage at Buffels Bay near Cape Point.
As to the Khoikhoi, their history in the region goes back a very long way, Khoikhoi migrants reached the Western Cape and Overberg region and began settling it good and proper by 1100 CE (that’s 400 odd years before the Portuguese). Here’s a real fun bit and inconvenient to the traditional narrative of Dutch (or even the British) idea of ‘establishing’ a trading station at Cape Town, there was one there already – the Khoikhoi had already established one.
In 1600 (52 years before the Dutch and 20 years before the British) a small community of Khoikhoi established the port of ‘Camissa’ in Table Bay. The ‘Camissa’ meaning ‘sweet water for all’ people established their port near to what is now the Cape Town waterfront/foreshore. They were known to the passing European shipping by the Dutch term for them ‘Watermans’ (water people). From what can be gathered from ship records, this indigenous people’s port serviced over 1071 ships with fresh produce and other trade; Dutch, English, Danish, Portuguese and French shipping. Stay overs in the port are recoded as been about 3 weeks and even up to 9 months. The Camissa settlement and port was seized by the Dutch in 1652 and over the next eight years the Camissa people were forced out of the area, particularly after the first Dutch-Khoi war in 1659.
As to whether the Khoikhoi were favourable to the ‘benevolent’ Dutch taking over their land, think again. Unlike the rather benevolent painting of the first Dutch interactions with the Khoikhoi for trade, some rather serious disputes broke out over land ownership and livestock. This resulted in attacks and counter-attacks by both sides which were known as the Khoikhoi–Dutch Wars that ended in the eventual defeat of the Khoikhoi, and the destruction of their society. The First Khoikhoi-Dutch War took place from 1659 – 1660 and the second from 1673 – 1677.
At the end of these wars, a ‘peace treaty’ between the Dutch and Khoikhoi was drafted and ratified by a party of Dutch and defeated Khoikhoi at the newly established ‘Castle’ in Cape Town, and it would guarantee trading terms between the two antagonists in favour of the Dutch, the KhoiKhoi were to supply a free pre-fixed quota of livestock and farm produce to the Dutch annually and stop the theft (also read land dispute) from settler’s farms . Bound to these terms the ‘original’ inhabitants of the Cape literally ‘traded’ their way into irrelevance, the gradual assimilation into the ‘servant’ sub-culture and the Smallpox epidemic in 1713 saw the destruction and eventual disappearance of their society and culture. Their legacy and DNA can still be found in the modern day Cape Coloured community.
As to the British and the Dutch, and the swings between the two. Here’s another inconvenient truth to dispel the old Nationalist folklore of nasty British Imperial intentions in ‘their land’; the ‘British’ did not invade the Cape and snatch it from the ‘Dutch’ in 1806 – they attacked the ‘French’. Huh! On drugs again eh! … No, read on.
The British – 2nd and 3rd attempt
By the time the Napoleonic Wars kicked off in 1803, the ‘Dutch Cape Colony’ was not really Dutch anymore, it was under the control of the French. The Dutch had full sway in Southern Africa for 143 years but in early 1795 in Europe, intervention by the French Republic in the Netherlands region led to the downfall of the old Dutch Republic and it was replaced with a French vassal state called the Batavian Republic. The Batavian Republic, run by the French, comprised an amalgamation of what is now Belgium, Holland and bits of Germany.
The British were at war with the French and they took the opportunity to seize the Cape Colony from the Batavian Republic (read French). Two British invasions against the Batavian Republic in the Cape, the first in 1795 (settled by the Peace of Amins in 1802 and return of the Colony to the Batavian Republic) and the second in 1805 as part of the British campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. In July 1805 a British fleet was urgently despatched to the Cape, to forestall French troopships which Napoleon had send to reinforce his Batavian Republic garrison there. The arrival of the British led to a small but significant battle between the Batavian garrison and the British called the Battle of Blaauwberg on 8 January 1806.
Here’s a painting to commemorate it, the HMS Diadem at the capture of the Cape of Good Hope, by Thomas Whitcombe. What’s interesting about this, and to quote Eddie Izzard again “we stole entire countries with the cunning use of flags!” – it’s the same Union Jack without the Ireland inclusion that the HMS Unitie had when it arrived to colonise the place in 1620, although nobody bothered to commemorate that very first colonisation of the Cape with a painting.
The Batavian garrison lost the Battle of Blauuwberg and subsequent skirmishes, over 700 dead and wounded compared to the relatively light butchers bill for the British of about 200 dead and wounded. British victory at the Battle of Waterloo and the end of French Napoleonic era effectively ended Dutch and French aspirations in Southern Africa as Colonisers.
The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 and the Treaty of Paris 1814 to end the Napoleonic wars would see the British gain official control of the Cape Colony and also remunerate the Dutch for the retention of their ex-Colony (£6 million) along with favourable Dutch trading rights, with the exclusion of Dutch slave traders, from 15 June 1814 Dutch ships for the slave trade were no longer permitted in British ports.
This brings about another inconvenient truth, the British anti-slavery position in the Cape started well before their official abolition of slavery proclamation in the Cape Colony in 1834, and this was to have a marked impact and resentment of British rule by some of the local Dutch/French inhabitants in the region – kicking off the Great Trek in 1835, but that’s a story for a different day.
The British would then have absolute influence, and a bloody one at that, in the region for the next 142 years (the same time period as the Dutch) until 1948, and finally bowing out of all influence in 1961 when South Africa was declared a Republic by the National Party who then went on to withdraw it from the British Commonwealth of Nations completely.
Even though the European colonisation of the Cape can be evenly split 50/50 between British and Dutch in its time period – 300 odd years, we are still appraising things through an idea of ‘European history’, there’s evidence of discovery and trading by Chinese and Arabic explorers in Africa along the Indian Ocean coastline long before the Portuguese. The ‘European’ part of the story remains but a blimp in the actual historical timeline of human settlement in the Western Cape, at the end of the day the land belongs to the origin people’s the San and KhoiKhoi. As to ‘civilising’ – that depends on what you regard as a civilisation, the Khoikhoi had a system of communication, farming, animal husbandry, commerce, art, dance, music and laws by which their society was structured.
If anyone thinks they welcomed the Europeans to their lands .. history shows they did not. If you want to see that in a communication – go and look at the KhoiKhoi paintings in the Cederberg, here’s my photo – KhoiKhoi giving their fellow travellers advise as to dangerous and ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ European colonisers in the area.
Dangerous colonisers are depicted with guns above their heads – ‘bad’ colonisers in the area are painted upside down, ‘good’ are upright … many of them are upside down.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
Sources include the Cassima Museum, wikipedia, Day to Day Naval History of South Africa by Chris Bennett and The South African History Association (SAHA).
A friend of mine, Dennis Morton is a prolific researcher and he brought up this rather interesting history which highlights the rebellious nature and political dichotomy in white South African families perfectly. So, here’s how a Boer war rebel’s history massively impacted South Africa’s liberal political landscape.
The Irish Brigade
During the South African War 1899-1902 (the Boer War), a number of British, especially Irish found themselves in alignment with the Boer Republic cause. Many of them were working on mines in the Transvaal or had otherwise settled and repatriated in the two Boer Republics prior to hostilities. Not just Irish, these ‘burgers’ also constituted many other Britons – Scots and even the odd Englishman. At the onset of the war they volunteered to join a Boer ‘Kommando’, and this one was special, it was created by John MacBride and initially commanded by an American West Point officer – Colonel John Blake. The Commando was called ‘The Irish Brigade’ mainly because of its very Irish/Irish American slant. After Colonel Blake was wounded in action at the Battle of Modderspruit, shot in the arm, command of the Irish Brigade was handed to John MacBride. The Brigade then saw action in the siege of Ladysmith, however this was not a happy time for Irish Brigade as its members were not enthusiastic about siege tactics. After the Boer forces were beaten back from the Ladysmith by the British the Irish Brigade began to fall apart. It was resurrected again as a second Commando in Johannesburg under an Australian named Arthur Lynch and disbanded after the Battle of Bergendal.
To say the Irish Brigade was controversial is an understatement, the whole of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom in 1899 (the Irish Republic split came much later) and members of this Brigade ran the risk of high treason if caught, especially if their ‘citizenships’ to the Boer Republics were not in order when the war began, or if they joined and swore allegiance to the Boers during the war itself.
So, at the end of the war there are a couple of Irish Brigade Prisoners of War who were captured and sent to St. Helena (which was the main camp for Boer POW) and they needed to be repatriated, in their case – the United Kingdom. The issue of treason hangs heavily on both of them.
Firstly, Prisoner 3783, Thomas Enright, an Irishman, who at one time was in the British army during the Matabele War and had changed allegiance to the Boer Republics, joining the Irish Brigade. The issue been the date of his burger citizenship which exceeded the amnesty for who was and who was not considered a ‘Burger’. The cut off for amnesty on oaths of allegiance by ‘foreigners’ to the Boer Republics was given as 29th September 1899.
The second is Prisoner 15910, John Hodgson, a Scotsman born at Paisley in the United Kingdom, he emigrated to Southern Africa in 1891. He lived in Rhodesia and moved to the Orange River Colony until 1896. He took the oath of allegiance to the South African Republic – ZAR (Transvaal) on the 28th or 29th December 1899, which was after the amnesty date. He served in the Irish Brigade under Blake and was captured by the British on 19th November 1900.
Luckily for both these men, they are not prosecuted for treason (which carried the death sentence) and repatriated to the United Kingdom after some heady politicking. Here’s where we stop with Thomas Enright and follow the Scotsman, John Hodgson.
On John Hodgson’s repatriation he is immediately ostracised by the British community because of his role on the side of the Boer Republics and six months after his return to the United Kingdom, he illegally boarded a ship bound for Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Here he set up shop working as a book-keeper and by 1904 John Hodgson’s family reunited with him in the Cape. Now, here’s the interesting bit that so often plagues ‘white’ South African families, although John Hodgson joined the Boer forces as a rebel, he, like many other Boer veterans, also harboured liberal political beliefs. He supported legal equality and the extension of a non-racial franchise (vote to all – Black emancipation) in Southern Africa.
Liberalism in South Africa
John Hodgson’s daughter, did not fall far from the tree, John’s rebellious and highly liberal nature rubbed off on her, she was Violet Margaret Livingstone Hodgson, who later married another liberal, William Ballinger. Margarat Ballinger would go down as a powerhouse in liberal politics in South Africa.
Margarat Ballinger would become the first President of The South African Liberal Party when it formed in 1953 and she would serve from 1937 as a Member of Parliament alongside Jan Smuts and his heir apparent Jan Hofmeyr. Highly vocal, she represented the Eastern Cape on the ‘Native Representatives Council’.
By 1947 her plans included new training and municipal representation for South African blacks and improved consultation with the Native Representatives Council. Time Magazine called her the ‘Queen of the Blacks’. Time Magazine went on to say Ballinger was the “white hope” leading 24,000,000 blacks as part of an expanded British influence in Southern Africa. Her Parliamentary career would take a dramatic turn when the National Party came to power in 1948.
By 1953, the ‘liberal’ side of the United Party lay in tatters, both Jan Smuts and Jan Hofmeyr had passed away in the short years of the ‘Pure’ National Party’s first tenure in power between 1948 and 1953. The Progressive Party and Liberal Party of South Africa would take shape to fill the void left by Smuts and Hofmeyr. The Liberal Party of South Africa was founded by Alan Paton and other ‘liberal’ United Party dissidents. Alan Paton came in as a Vice President and Margarat Ballinger the party’s first President. Unlike the United Party, the Liberal Party did not mince its position on the ‘black question’ and stood for full ‘Black, Coloured and Indian’ political emancipation and opened its doors to all races, they stood on the complete opposite extreme to the National Government and Apartheid and to the ‘left’ of the United Party.
Margarat Ballinger strongly voiced her anti-Apartheid views, opened up three ‘Black’ schools in Soweto without ‘permission’ and was one of a vocal few white voices openly defying H.F. Verwoerd. In 1960 she left Parliament when the South African government abolished the Parliamentary seats representing Black South Africans.
The Apartheid government’s heavy clampdown on ‘white liberals’ after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 forced many Liberal Party members into exile and many others were subject to various ‘banning’ actions locally. By 1968 the Apartheid government made it illegal for members of different races to join a singular political party, and instead of abiding the legislation (which the Progressive Party and others did), the Liberal Party stood it’s ground and chose to disband rather than reject its black members.
Not without a passing shot, in 1960 Margarat Ballinger published a scathing critique of Apartheid in a book she wrote called “From Union to Apartheid – A Trek to Isolation”. Ironic considering her family’s journey as a supporter of the ‘Boer’ cause. Regarded today as a ‘must read’ for anyone studying this period of South African history and Liberalism. She also wrote a trilogy on Britain in South Africa, Bechuanaland and Basutoland. Margarat passed away in 1980, before she could see the end of Apartheid.
So, there you have it, an unusual and very South African family story, a strong minded Brit turned Boer rebel and his equally strong minded daughter, one who would become a pioneer of woman and liberalism in South Africa. It also reminds us as to the complexities and paradoxes of The South African War 1899-1902 and the different political sentiments at play within the Boer Forces, some of which can still surprise many today.
Written by Peter Dickens with great thanks to Dennis Morton for his research and writings.