A rose for a South African war hero, honoured every week in Italy, forgotten in South Africa!

This is the story of Lt. Samuel Schneider, a South African SAAF hero who evaded captivity in Italy only to join the Italian Resistance as a Partisan and fight the war on the ground.  He is honoured every year in Italy as a national hero where a red rose is regularly laid at his headstone by a grateful nation.  Whereas in South Africa, his homeland, there is now scarce recognition of him.

Lieutenant Samuel Schneider, was born in Springs in South Africa, he was a 1 Squadron South African Air Force pilot of Jewish heritage, and is buried at Faenza’s Allied War Cemetery. On his headstone it reads “He lived and died nobly” on the base, under a Star of David on the top, and his is a very interesting story.

His story is intertwined in Bologna where he fought and died in a famous battle between rebel Italian Partisans and Nazi-fascist forces on November 7, 1944 – called the Battle of Porta Lame.  However because he used a pseudonym name to fight with the Partisans ‘ John Klemlen’ and kept his identity secret – so some confusion on his identity and burial-place arose.

An anniversary is annually dedicated to the fallen of the Battle of Porta Lame and for the Italians commemorating it the true identity of their hero Partisan ‘John Klemlen’ and his burial-place became quite important.  They approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to find him.  The CWGC and the South African military archive where able to trace John Klemlen to Lt. Samuel Schneider and how his joining of the Partisans came about.

During the afternoon of August 22, 1944,  Lt. Schneider was part of a patrol of four SAAF 1 Squadron Mk IX Spitfires.  Their mission was to search out enemy communication structures and destroy them. Flying north of Bologna, and flying very low looking for targets, Lt. Schneider’s Spitfire was struck by anti-aircraft fire which damaged the cooling system and he had to abandon his aircraft.

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SAAF 1 Squadron MK IX Spitfire in Italy, bombed up with 500lb bomb

In enemy territory and thanks to some local farmers in the area he received civilian clothes to disguise himself to get back to his squadron, he was saved by the local Partisan Resistance who had managed to hide him, staying with farm families in the Calderara area. To avoid detection and keep those helping him safe he used the false identity of John Klemlen. 

The Partisans, known as Gruppi d’azione (abbreviated to GAP) or “Patriotic Action Group” in English,  were small teams of resistance fighters trained in the use of revolvers and explosives. They approached enemy forces with a quick strike and moved away equally as quickly – almost always on bicycles.

The Partisans gave Lt. Schneider an offer, to be escorted over enemy lines and possibly be caught or to stay,  They pleaded for him to help them and fight with them.  He gave in and chose to join the Bolognese Partisans, who then gave him an Italian ‘battlefield’ name – Gianni.  

The Battle of Porta Lame is an episode of Italian resistance during World War II. It was fought on November 7, 1944 near Porta Lame in Bologna and saw detachments of the 7th GAP (Gruppi d’azione) Partisans engage German Nazi forces and Italian Fascist forces. Despite the superiority of the German and Italian forces, the partisans managed to escape the progressive encirclement of their positions.

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William Michelini, a Partisan, remembered John Klemlen (Samuel Schneider) well, riding a bicycle and the pistol in his pocket for some or other mission on the streets of Bologna.  He recalled a very brave South African officer, who at the height of the Battle of Porta Lame in the afternoon, was surrounded by enemy fire, remaining behind giving cover fire for retreating Partisans.  He was wearing a leather jacket and a fur collar – an aviators jacket.  He was killed in action later that day – November 7, 1944.

His name is recalled every 7th of November during the ceremonies dedicated to the anniversary of the battle and a beautiful garden inside the ‘Parco del Cavaticcio’ park is named in his honour.

Other South African pilots, like Lt Cecil William Emil Blake who escaped from a POW camp, also fought with Italian Partisans and he got the Army Military Cross for his ground action.  It’s well about time we honoured these men in South Africa and if this article goes some way to raising awareness so much the better.

Every Sunday, for many years now, the local Italians who either remember Lt. Samuel Schneider and those who honour his memory in the liberation of Italy from Fascism and Nazism, bring him a flower and place it on his headstone.  

The honour role of Italian Partisans who fell at the Battle of Porta Lame

084018836-269df416-536b-4317-9e69-a21bcb2003a6Oddone Baiesi 21
Oliano Bosi 23
In Casali 17
Enzo Cesari 18

Ercole Dalla Valle 17
Guido Guernelli 38
Lt. Samuel Schneider (aka John Klemlen) SAAF
Ettore Magli 19
Rodolfo Mori 19
Alfonso Ricchi 19
Alfonso Tosarelli 41
Antonio Zucchi 19

Grave Reference: VII. B. 3.Cemetery: Faenza war cemetery. Son of Abraham and Celia Schneider, of Springs, Transvaal, South Africa.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens


Master image featured ‘The Battle of Porta Lame’ by Tullio Ravenda (copyright).  References – Wikipedia, Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Resistenzamappe.  Corriere Di Bologna, La Vera Storia Di Schneider, Aviatore Eroe A Porta Lame. Photo of SAAF 1 sqdn Spitfire IX copyright Johnny Seccombe, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Authors note: My most sincere thanks to Fabio Liverani, a subscriber to The Observation Post Facebook Page for highlighting this most brave and honoured South African and bringing this history to our attention.

General Mark Clark’s praise of the South Africans

WW2 – In December 1944 an American General – General Mark Clark – took overall command of Allied ground troops in Italy (15th Army Group). This included taking overall command of the South African 6th Armoured Division, and he said this in praise of the South Africans:

“It was a battle-wise outfit, bold and aggressive against the enemy, and willing to do whatever job was necessary. In fact, after a period of severe day and night fighting, the 6th had in an emergency gone into the line as infantrymen. When the snow stalled their armour they dug in their tanks and used them as artillery to make up for our shortage in heavy guns. Whenever I saw them, I was impressed by the large number of decorations and honours they had earned the hard way. Their attacks against strongly organised German positions were made with great élan and without regard for casualties. Despite their comparatively small numbers, they never complained about losses. Neither did Smuts, who made it clear that the Union of South Africa intended to do its part in the War – and it most certainly did”.

General Mark C. Clark, Calculated Risk. p. 391

The featured image shows General Clarke inspecting South African troops at the end of the war during a parade in Monza,  Italy (held on the famous Monza race track).

G10154203_282011528635253_3582423716020249574_neneral Mark Clarke was ultimately made the Supreme Commander of the AFHQ in the Mediterranean, replacing Field Marshal Sir Maitland Wilson, He was promoted to the four-star rank of General on March 10, 1945, aged 48, the youngest in the United States Army. Clark led the 15th Army Group in the Spring 1945 offensive in Italy codenamed Operation Grapeshot, which brought the war in Italy to an end, and afterwards he accepted the German surrender in Italy in May and became Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy at the end of World War 2 in Europe.

WW2 SAAF Pilot drives for show and putts for dough – Lt. Bobby Locke

With a very special Masters finishing this weekend and Sergio Garcia achieving what has become one of golf’s truly special wins (especially on fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros’  birthday)  .. I am now reminded of a very famous South African golfer and war veteran – Bobby Locke, seen here taking some time off at a Services Golf Tournament held in Rome during World War 2.

When World War 2 interrupted Locke’s burgeoning career as a golfer, he joined the South African Air Force as a bomber pilot, serving in both the Mediterranean and the Western Desert theatres of combat.

At the end of the war Locke returned to golf, famously playing in a series of matches in the USA against Sam Snead.  Bobby Locke’s legacy is remarkable, triumphant and tragic. He was a four-time Open Champion Champion and winner of 72 professional tournaments, but a car accident in 1960 damaged him physically and mentally and had an ultimately devastating affect on his wife and daughter.

In terms of the game of golf Locke quickly realised: “No matter how well I might play the long shots, if I couldn’t putt, I would never win”.  He therefore became a magnificent putter, in many people’s opinion (including Gary Player’s) the best there has ever been.

His unorthodox playing style translated to his putting, trapping the ball and imparting a hooking, top spin to it.  He later coined the often used golfing maxim: “You drive for show but putt for dough”.

It was on the greens that this remarkable South African truly excelled. He used an old rusty putter with a hickory shaft and employed his unorthodox technique, echoing his wider approach to life. He was an extrovert who sported baggy plus fours with shirt and tie on course. He liked singing music-hall numbers and played the ukulele.

Bobby – or “old muffin face” as he was known (because he never changed expression) was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977.  He was only the second non-USA or United Kingdom entrant after his fellow South African Gary Player (1974) to be inducted.

Featured photograph above shows: Lieutenant Bobby Locke during the war, now serving in the South African Air Force, playing while Private Tommy Bolt, the American golfer looks on – note: on this occasion as he is in the Air Force he is not playing in his legendary baggy plus fours.

Feature image – Imperial War Museum Collection copyright.  Reference Bobby Locke: From Triumph to Tragedy by Fergus Bisset.

Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!

The culture of owing a debt of gratitude to South Africa’s military veterans is sorely lacking – for all of them, then and now.  But especially to these very forgotten South African “Black, Indian and Coloured” WW1 and WW2 heroes of which the current generation really does have little or no understanding.  It’s truly a tale of the suppression of history and the fight for recognition.

The featured image is a very rare photograph of South African medics in combat in WW2 during the Italian Campaign, dramatically caught running stooped under intense fire to stretcher bear a wounded man out of the combat zone. What is even more interesting is the make-up of these South African 6th Armoured Division medics. Here we have men from the South African Cape Corps, the South African Native Military Corps and the South African Indian Service Corps all involved in this casualty evacuation.

The politics of the day had an odd philosophy underpinning it. During the Second War the South African Union Defence Force still differentiated and segregated Corps according to race. However such was the odd politics of the time that men drawn from the Cape Coloured and Indian communities into their respective corps could function in combatant roles and carry firearms – as well as non combatant roles – such as a medic. However Black men drawn into the Native Military Corps (NMC) could not function in a combatant role and where not allowed to carry firearms – although they could carry a spear when on guard duty. They could however step into harms way in combat and put their lives on the line, as is seen here doing stretcher bearing as a medic.

All this politically driven segregation mattered not a jot when the bullets started flying around. This picture stands in stark testimony to this.

The separation of these men became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances combat units quite quickly also “unofficially” issued firearms to their NMC members

As is often the case in combat, and many veterans will attest to this, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

There is certainly no such thing as segregation when it comes to your fellow countrymen from across the racial spectrum risking their lives to save one of their own countrymen in a full blown firefight – as is so demonstrably shown here. These are all South African heroes – it’s that simple.

During the Second World War Black, Coloured and Indian South African community and political leaders, agreed to support the South African Union government’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany and send members of their community into the fight. The hope was that it would buy them more political currency and leverage at the negotiation table after the war for extended rights and political representation. Initially it looked like this would pay off as Jan Smuts and his United Party proposed giving qualified franchise votes to Black citizens whose service in the military was also deemed as such a qualification.

Unfortunately this very progressive way of thinking did not sit well with the National Party and their supporters and they used it as a Political “race” card in their campaigning in the 1948 elections. So much s that they rather unexpectedly and very narrowly won the elections and ousted Jan Smuts and the United Party.

The true tragedy was yet to come.  Not only was all this sacrifice and valour in vain – the National Party went to great lengths to further marginalise these soldiers – denying them medical aid, reduced pensions and excluding them as veterans from Remembrance and Military Parades, as well as denying them access to veterans facilities and organisations.

It was not unusual to find a small grouping of Native Military Corps veterans sitting under a tree away from the national parade with their medals proudly flickering in the sunlight, telling their war stories to anyone prepared to take the time to listen to them.  Excluded, forgotten and vanquished as traitors for serving “Britain” by the reigning Nationalists.

The political philosophy of the time substantially down-played the contribution of “non white” servicemen lest heroes be made of them. History in South Africa would record both the First and Second World War’s as a white man’s one – when nothing can be further from the truth.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published – which was that 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”. In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.

This forgotten and “lost” valour is something South Africa’s oldest and most prestigious veterans organisation – The South African Legion of Military Veterans, has been fighting for from day one; at times the Legion went to serious loggerheads with the government of the day over pensions and representation for these men. The South African Legion eventually won the fight on pensions by the late 1980’s, when equal pensions where finally awarded these men.

We as South Africans need to work to address the historic void created by political posturing at the detriment of the country’s forgotten WW1 and WW2 heroes. This is why the recognition of the sinking of the Mendi and other commemorations becomes so important – it’s our duty as South African veterans to uphold honour where honour is well due. Not only to these men, but to anyone who has served in South Africa’s defence forces.

Image – SANDF Archive, Researched by Peter Dickens

An unsung South African hero; Cpl W. Cloete

Honouring real South African heroes and here stands an exceptional one. Corporal William Cloete was a Cape Coloured Corps member and the leader of a stretcher bearer team attached to the Cape Town Highlanders regiment in Italy during the Second World War.

During a fierce fight with German troops when his company was pinned down on three sides by mortar and machine gun fire, under persistent enemy firing, Cloete and his team carried ten of their own wounded soldiers to safety; for this he received the Military Medal for bravery.

Nearly a year later, at the age of 24, Cloete was struck by a bullet from a German sniper and permanently blinded in both eyes. After the war Cloete attended the School for the Blind in Bellville. He became an expert basket-maker for the rest of his working life and passed away in 1993.

On the 11th of November, your fellow veterans salute and remember you Cpl Cloete.

South African Sappers at Monte Cassino … one of the fiercest battles of WW2

South Africans are seen in this historic image taking part in one of the most bitter battles of World War 2 – Monte Cassino.  Overlooked by the ruins of the historic hill-top monastery, South African engineers of 11th Field Company, South African Engineer Corps, clear rubble from ‘Route 6’, the main road through Cassino. The final German resistance had ceased only hours before.

The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was fierce – it was a costly series of four assaults by the American, Polish, Free French, British and Commonwealth Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Nazi German and other Axis forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The intention was a breakthrough to Rome.

The above images show German soldiers holding their positions in Cassino and a British soldier with a Bren gun assaulting an Axis position amongst the shattered rubble of the  Monastery.

Between 17 January and 18 May 1944 the Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted by Allied troops, the last Allied assault involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. The German defenders (including crack German airborne troops) were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The capture of Monte Cassino tolled some 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being far fewer, estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded.

Polish troops entered the shattered hill-top monastery, a symbol of German resistance at Cassino, the morning of the 18th May 1944.

The images show the British and Polish flags on top of the Monastery at Cassino on the final day of the assault and surrendering German soldiers.

This is the monastery before and after it was destroyed. Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused Allied leaders to conclude the monastery at Cassino, which had existed as a benedictine monastery  from 529 AD was being used by the Germans as an observation post.

Fears escalated along with casualties, and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, the monastery was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins.

The monetary has since been rebuilt and is a national heritage site.

Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum, reference wikipedia

 

The origin of SAAF 1 Squadron’s nickname – “Billy Boys”

Spitfire Mk IX of South African Air Force’s 1 Squadron preparing for take-off from a Sicilian airfield, perhaps Pachino on 1943, these are the famous “Billy Boys”.  How they got their nickname is actually quite interesting and distinctively South African.

This squadron had an incredible success rate and whenever one of it’s pilots had an aerial victory shooting down an enemy aircraft his fellow South African pilots would all shout “Jou BIELIE” down their radios.

The term “bielie” is an Afrikaans term for a prime example e.g. ‘n bielie van ‘n bul, meaning a prime example of a bull. Calling someone “‘n bielie” is a term of recognition of something special. Calling a pilot that after a successful aerial shoot down would have been equal to saying that he is a prime example of a fighter pilot. “Jou bielie van ‘n skut” meaning “you cracking shot”.

The British Royal Air Force pilots who where on the same frequency as the South Africans where slightly perplexed by the term thinking they where calling out “Billy” instead of “Bielie”, so they quickly started to refer to the SAAF 1 Squadron pilots as “Billy Boys”. The nickname stuck.

To give an idea of the success rate 1 SAAF Squadron total for the war was 165.5 kills, the highest scoring SAAF squadron.

Here are South African Air Force 1 Squadron Hurricanes taking off from Msus, Libya. Image copyright Imperial War Museum.

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Feature image of SAAF 1 Squadron Spitfire Mk IX colourised and copyright to Tinus Le Roux