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:
Colin Eglin, the long-time anti-apartheid campaigner and long-time leader of the opposition Democrats in South Africa has recently had a road named after him … but so what! Many streets and roads are named after various politicians in South Africa, especially the anti-apartheid campaigners in recent times … however, this one is different, very different.
Why? Because Colin Eglin Road is not in South Africa, it’s in Italy.
Most modern South Africans who can even recall him, just know him as part of the last vestige of ‘white liberals’ in a ‘whites only’ Parliament trying to hold the juggernaut of the National Party and its Apartheid policy to account. A tiny voice calling for full democracy in a sea of National Party (NP) rural ‘afrikaner-bloc’ gerrymandering which overtook him and pushed the ‘official opposition’ i.e. the PFP (now the DA) and the more liberal ‘english-bloc’ urban voters calling for an end to Apartheid into complete political irrelevance.
Note – this gerrymandering (the weighting and re-drawing of constituency boundaries to create a favourable political bias) which the NP used to destroy Colin Eglin and the PFP using the ‘rural bias’ is now happily used by the ANC and this last significant footprint of Apartheid has been put to good effect keeping the DA’s ‘urban’ vote ineffectual.
So, gerrymandering has resulted in well-regarded South African politicians been side-lined – what it did to the ‘democrat’ opposition bench then, it also does to them now. You may now even have to ask ‘Who is Colin Eglin anyway?’ and how is it that Colin Eglin became so revered that the Italians have named one of their roads after him?
That bit has a lot to do with Colin Eglin’s status as a military veteran and his tireless campaigning for South African military veteran recognition and the causes they fought so hard for in the mountains of Italy.
Now, who even knew Colin Eglin was a 2nd World War veteran? Let’s examine what drove this most complex war veteran turned political campaigner.
Colin Wells Eglin was born on 14th April 1925 in Sea Point, Cape Town, at a young age he moved to live with his aunt, outside Hobhouse, Eastern Free State when his father died after a long illness. Colin attended the Hobhouse School where he was the only English–speaking pupil – “I found myself the only rooinek (red neck, or English-speaker) in the village school.” he later lamented and he very quickly came to learn of the ‘Afrikaner politics’ and tension between the National Party supporters of DF Malan and those of Barry Hertzog – politics which began to deeply affect him. It also him the rare advantage of being fully fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
Colin was a bright and highly intelligent pupil and he left the Orange Free State and attended the De Villiers Graaf High School in Villiersdorp where he matriculated in 1939 at the very young age for a matriculant – only 14 years old.
Colin Eglin during WW2
South Africa had gone to war when Colin matriculated, at 14 years old he was too young to join the army, so in 1940 (now aged just 15) Colin Eglin registered for a Bachelor of Science degree in quantity surveying at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In 1943, now finally at the recruitment age of 18 he interrupted his studies at UCT to fulfil Jan Smuts’ call to go to war, and he voluntarily joined the army.
World War 2
Colin initially became a full-time instructor in the anti-aircraft unit in Cape Town. He was then sent to a similar unit in Egypt and transferred to Italy in 1944 joining the 6th South African Armoured Division fighting in the Italian Apennines around Florence. Now a 19-year-old ‘rookie’ soldier, he was to be baptised in the last significant combat operations of the war and was front and forward in the South African assault on Monte Sole.
Colin Eglin had joined ‘D Company’ of an amalgamated Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC) from Grahamstown unit which had formed a combined regiment for service in the 6th South African Armoured Division.
The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC), known collectively as ‘FC/CTH’ had just previously acquitted themselves very well under the command of Lt Col. Angus Duncan in the taking of Monte Stanco from strong German positions and at this stage the war had entered a static winter period before the next big push onto Monte Sole.
As Colin had completed four years university study at UCT in quantity surveying it was felt that he had sufficient qualification for ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and he was put on a course to become ‘D’ Company’s intelligence corporal (the military – then and now – often displays this odd logic for placing individuals civilian qualifications for military needs).
Colin was taken to the ‘Pink House’ near Grizzana, a farm building that was also the operational HQ of ‘C’ Company for a crash course of two weeks training in ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and then back to D Company.
‘D’ Company had its headquarters in a cluster of farmhouses, named the ‘Foxhole’, on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Grizzana. As it was in the line of fire of enemy positions, ‘Foxhole’ was a tough, cold and miserable posting. Colin found himself in a forward observation post (OP) located at the cemetery at Campiaro. The OP overlooked the town of Vergato which was the centre of the German defences in the area.
In the freezing weather, snow and mud guard duty and patrols by D company in the area were a miserable affair. Patrols were sent out at night, and they almost always hit fierce and lethal contacts with the German defenders. In these patrols and observations Cpl Colin Elgin became adept at map reading and at recognising, and noting, the sounds and sights of warfare.
Much needed ‘Rest and Recuperation’ (R&R) came around every two weeks when ‘D Company’ members would go to nearby Castiglione dei Pepoli, the South African 6th Division HQ was located there and they could shower, get fresh supplies and spend some time relaxing. Known to the South African soldiers as ‘Castig’ the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli was to become a central feature in Colin Eglin’s life for years to come.
The South African 6th Division in the town square of Castiglione dei Pepoli – 1945.
In the valleys around Monte Sole, between the 29th September and 5 October 1944 the Italian resistance kicked into action, this then spurred the defending German forces into an extreme action to control the area. They embarked on massacre, and proceeded to try to wipe out all Italian civilians around Monte Sole – resistance, men, women and children (all of them – it mattered not a jot). The town of Marzabotto alone commemorates the massacre of 770 individuals, mostly the elderly, women and children.
With the static winter period over, by the spring of 1945 the South African 6th Division could advance on Monte Sole. In April 1945 Colin Eglin joined a CTH/FC forward party for a briefing on the assault on Monte Sole by Colonel Angus Duncan.
Colin noted “In a few weeks’ time the Allied spring offensive would commence. The Sixth Armoured Division had been given the task of opening the road to Bologna. To do this, the Twelfth Brigade would have to capture the mountain massif formed by Monte Sole, Caprara and Abelle. The Highlanders had been assigned to capture Monte Sole. Suddenly that mountain we had gazed at all winter from a safe distance was in front of us. Forbidding, frightening, challenging. Casualties were likely to be heavy. Yet there was a sense of pride that our regiment had been chosen for this pivotal battle task, and quiet determination to show we could do it”.
The South African 6th Division attack in Spring 1945 was a two-pronged affair, the Cape Town Highlanders and First City (FC/CTH) were to take Monte Sole – regarded as the most formidable of the German Army defences, and Witwatersrand Rifles/Regiment de la Rey (another amalgamated unit) i.e. WR/DLR were to take Monte Caprara. The idea was to eventually push through and capture the crossings of the River Po and break out into the vallies and plains beyond the mountains.
Looking more like partisans than regulars, a First City/Cape Town Highlanders patrol sets out in the italian Apennines – 1945. SANDF Archive
To prepare for the attack on 15th April 1945, the German defensive positions were bombed from the air and shelled by artillery. In taking Caprara, the WR/DLR suffered heavy casualties right from the start and in desperate fighting which at time even involved hand-to-hand combat, they took the mountain. Counter-attacks by German forces were effectively fought off by the South African tenaciously holding on to their win.
Colin Eglin was assembled at the start-line for FC/CTH attack on Monte Sole at Casa Belvedere (two kilometers from the peak of Monte Sole). He had just celebrated his 20th birthday the day before.
Both ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies of FC/CTH advanced along two farm tracks leading up to the summit on Monte Sole. They re-assembled 800 meters from the crest of Monte Sole. The area was heavily mined by Germans, but despite this the South Africans of C and D company advanced under the command a 20-year-old rookie officer with only 12 days front line combat exposure. 2nd Lt. Gordon Mollett led the charge up the approach with only five men and ‘with total disregard for his life’ wiped out the machine gun posts on the crest of Monte Sole with the loss of one of his men.
So swift was the assault on the German’s position that they were completely unprepared for proper defence or the bayonet charge, and with that 2nd Lt Mollett walked into South African history with a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his actions and the rest of C and D companies of the FC/CTH took the crest and won the day.
Preceding the final attack on Monte Sole, Colin Eglin had been tasked to install telephone lines as far up the route as possible. Highly dangerous work, on his way up to Monte Sole the soldier walking just behind him stood on a German anti-personnel Schützenmine 42 mine. Also known as a Schuh mine (shoe mine) it is a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 type detonator, and it blew off part of the South African soldiers foot.
Colin applied an emergency field dressing to his wounded comrades foot, administered first aid and called for a stretcher-bearer. Even with the threat of mines now highly apparent Colin and couple of ‘D’ Company platoons continued to press forward to the summit. Colin was able to get to the top and rigged up his field radio under fire, only to have its aerial cut in two by all the shrapnel and bullets flying around, thus rendering it useless. So he scrambled down the mountain to the HQ, it was here that he took in the news of the tragic death of his Commander – Lt Col Angus Duncan. He was killed the foot of Monte Sole when his jeep was blown up.
It is thought that the jeep carrying Lt. Col Duncan hit a mine, while other witness accounts suggest an artillery round fired from a German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun across the valley hit the vehicle.
Officer Commanding First City/Cape Town Highlanders, Lt Col Angus Duncan, addressing his men before the assault on Monte Sole. He was killed shortly after this photograph was taken, while driving to his brigade’s position. SANDF Archive
Many years later in Peter Elliott’s interview with Colin Eglin (then Colin was 88 years old and this was his last visit to Italy), whilst the two of them re-traced the steps of FC/CTH at Monte Sole, Colin recalled how the strain of war impacted two completely different soldiers and comrades, Jan and Peter. Jan was a tough outdoors man, an extrovert and he relished army life prior to the battle. Peter was a indoors man, an introvert who just endured army life out of a sense of duty. During the battle for Monte Sole it was Jan, the extrovert whose nerves snapped, and he had to be withdrawn from battlefield. Colin found Peter, the introvert some time later still in his slit trench. He had been under intense mortar fire during a number of German counter-attacks, but remained resolute. He was exhausted but even cheerful and shouted across at Colin triumphantly, ‘Corporal, we made it!’
Even though the taking of the crest had been swift, the Battle for Monte Sole was heavy and hard going, in all FC/CTH suffered heavy losses – a total of 31 men killed and 78 men wounded. The extent of contribution of the two Regiments to the battle and victory can be seen in the bravery – in all twelve gallantry medals and awards were won.
The capture of Monte Sole by FC/CTH opened up the road to Bologna and beyond the Po Valley, within two short weeks on 2 May 1945, the Germans formally surrendered in Italy. For the South Africans it was effectively war over!
‘D’ Company FC/CTH HQ Melzo, Italy, a week after war ended in May 1945. Colin Eglin is fourth from right, back row.
But a new struggle was emerging for these newly minted war veterans, certainly for Colin Eglin. After the War Colin remained in Italy for nine months, he was stationed at Castiglione dei Pepoli, the town located near Monte Sole remained the South African 6th Armoured Division’s headquarters and it now became a depot and clearing station for the entire division (in fact the main South African military burial ground in Italy is located there). During this period, whilst waiting to be demobilised he undertook extra-mural courses in Archaeology and Town Planning.
The entire event had made an indelible impression on Colin’s soul, it was the Italian Campaign that was to deepen his commitment to democracy and liberty. Monte Sole was a shrine for him as he returned there on many occasions during the next sixty-eight years to stand gazing at the mountain where, as a young man, he quickly became an adult. During these trips he was also to build a lasting relationship with the towns-people of Castiglione dei Pepoli.
A military veteran’s legacy
In his autobiography, “Crossing the Borders of Power – The Memoirs of Colin Eglin,” Colin mentions the discussions that took place among the South African soldiers in 1945, whilst in Italy waiting to be repatriated to South Africa. Colin noted:
“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial, but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure. The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”
The children’s hospital was to be built as a memorial to those who had contributed by sacrifice, suffering and service in the Second World War, the soldiers felt that children had been the innocent victims of the war and the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital was devoted to the relief of the suffering of children.
The building of the Children’s Hospital in Cape Town commenced in 1953 under the guidance of the South African Red Cross Society and remains a ‘living war memorial’ helping the most vulnerable of the community – our children – and Colin Eglin was to play a leading role in making it happen.
Colin Eglin speaking at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town on Remembrance Day
During his life-time Colin returned to the Italian Apennines and Castiglione dei Pepoli over ten times. For his work on Remembrance and maintaining the links of this part of Italy with their liberators – South Africa – he was even made an honorary citizen of the town of Grizzana Morandi.
But why was an opposition party leader elevated to such a significant position in Italy and not a government one? We all know the answer to that, as the Nationalist Party had no really sincere intentions on commemorating South Africa’s war against Nazism and Fascism in Italy, before and during the war they had supported the ideals of Nazism and Fascism. They were not going to change their stance on Britain, British Allies, Smuts, World War 2 or even Fascism. So this key task on building on the South African sacrifice in Europe, lest it all be in vain, was left to that part of the South African mainstream party political spectrum which supported Smuts and all the ‘liberals’ who went to war against Nazi Germany – and that part of the party political spectrum in 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was Colin Eglin’s turf.
The political path for Post War veterans
In 1946 Colin returned from the Italian theatre of Military Operations to South Africa, here he picked up where he left off and continued with his studies, graduating the same year with a B.Sc in Quantity Surveying from UCT.
He became involved in civic affairs and started the Pinelands Young People’s Club which helped set up a sister organization in the neighbouring Coloured village of Maitland. In 1951 he became chairman of the Pinelands Civic Association and was elected to the Pinelands town council.
The electoral loss of the Jan Smuts’ United Party in 1948 to the National Party and their Apartheid proposals sent shock waves into South Africa’s war veteran community. The war for liberty and democracy they had conducted overseas in places like Italy, against the same forces of fascism which had now come home to roost in South Africa. This spurred The Torch Commando in the early 1950’s led by Sailor Malan and Colin Eglin as a returning war veteran joined The Torch Commando and started to become very politicised.
The Torch Commando was the first anti-Apartheid mass protest movement, and it was made up of returning war veterans. It was primarily a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and was crushed by the National Party because of the military threat it posed – and it was done by using ‘anti-communist’ legislation designed to curtail any ideology in opposition to Apartheid.
The Torch Commando was linked to the United Party, who tried to leverage it for the ‘service vote’ and wrestle power back from the National Party. In 1953 Colin decided to enter in formal political party opposition to Apartheid in addition to protesting with The Torch Commando – and he joined Smuts’ United Party (Smuts had just passed away in 1950). Almost immediately he became the political campaign manager for his friend Zach de Beer who was the United Party (UP) candidate for the parliamentary seat of Maitland. Colin Eglin and Zach de Beer were to form a friendship and political bond which would transform itself into what is now the modern “Democratic Alliance’, of the two Helen Suzman would say “Zach was clever, but Colin was sounder”.
In 1954 Colin himself was elected unopposed as the UP provincial councillor for Pinelands. In addition to that, he became chairman of the UP’s Cape Peninsula Council and then in 1958 Eglin became the Peninsula MP.
By August 1959, following the United Party’s congress in Bloemfontein, Colin broke from the UP ranks, the new guard in the UP instead of following Smuts’ vision of universal suffrage and holistic reconciliation in South Africa, still humoured the more conservative elements of the party who wanted a limited franchise and some restrictive movements for South Africa’s black migrant working population – a sort of ‘Apartheid Lite’ if you will.
In 1959 this was clearly no longer the direction needed or in any way relevant for liberal and democratic opposition parties in South Africa. Colin was one of UP rebels who issued a declaration of dissent (the others included Zach de Beer and Helen Suzman).
Helen Suzman at a Progressive Party meeting
In November that year he was one of the 11 members of parliament who formed the nucleus of the new Progressive Party (PP). It was a bold move, it would ultimately spell the end of the United Party and the conservative element within it, also by fractionating the official opposition (the UP) it certainly bolstered the National Party. What it did however also do was draw the line in the sand of ‘white politics’ – on the one side, the whites who supported Apartheid and a whites only vote and on the other side whites who did not support Apartheid and wanted a democratic vote for all.
All through this Colin Eglin never wavered from his adherence to liberal, democratic values, he aimed to reform the system from the inside; and by balancing criticism of race discrimination with political pragmatism he sometimes found himself the subject of attack from both black and white communities.
The ANC would argue that by participating in the apartheid political system, no matter what his stance, Eglin helped perpetuate it. Yet by participating Eglin was also able to work against the Apartheid government machine and make important political gestures – such as his visit to the black activist Steve Biko, or sending ‘official government opposition’ delegations to promote the dismantling of Apartheid in the so-called ‘independent’ Bantustan ‘homelands’ and promoted dialogue with urbanised black leadership.
By 1966 Colin Eglin became chairman on the National Executive of the Progressive Party (PP) and in 1971 he became the party leader succeeding Jan Steytler. In an attempt to attract Afrikaners to the PP, he initiated ‘Deurbraak’, the first journal of verligte (enlightened) opinion in South Africa. Colin Eglin also initiated a dialogue between the PP and Black homeland and urban leaders. He was also instrumental in establishing Synthesis, a non-party political study and discussion group, which became an important tool for information and contact across the colour bar. He also held a symposium of 50 Afrikaner academics in 1971, from which a non-party-political movement, Verligte Aksie, was formed.
In 1974 the PP won six seats in the general election with the seventh coming from a by-election a few months later. In 1975 Eglin negotiated the merger with members of the Reform Party, which led to the formation of the Progressive Reform Party (PRP). In 1976 he called an Extraordinary Parliamentary session to discuss the Soweto Uprising and call for the resignation of the Minister of Bantu Affairs, M.C. Botha.
A combination of gerrymandering by the National Party and totalitarian crack-down by the Apartheid State of South Africa’s liberal ‘democratic’ politicians, gagging many of them by way of banning and sending many into exile after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, saw liberal politics in a racially segregated and conservative Afrikaner biased voting sphere become absolutely irrelevant – and the PP would eventually lose all its seats, except one – Helen Suzman – who remained a lone voice of official opposition to Apartheid in Parliament for many years.
Also for many years, while she was the Progressive’s sole MP, Colin Eglin acted as Helen Suzman’s link with extra-parliamentary activities. He travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, America and even China. During visits to 15 African countries, as official government ‘opposition’ to the National Party he met many heads of state to drive international opposition to Apartheid – and he did this using official and politically legal channels – without having to resort his party to violent opposition.
Criticism of the PRP by the National Party as they tried to brand then as a “Tool of Communist agitators.” was swiftly put in place by Suzman who said .. “it’s really a joke, isn’t it? Because, quite clearly, we are a party of real moderates. It just shows how little they understand.”
In 1977, following a merger with the Committee for United Opposition that had also broken away from the United Party the PRP became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). By 1979 Colin stepped down as leader in favour of Dr F van Zyl Slabbert and became Shadow Foreign Minister, a post he would hold until 1986.
In 1986 Colin Eglin found himself at the reigns of his party again following the shock resignation of Van Zyl Slabbert from the PFP. Ironically van Zyl Slabbert had one crucial deficiency, which Eglin had in spades – staying power. Eglin, on one occasion described the pursuit of the liberal cause on the stony soil of South Africa as “the politics of the long haul”. And when Slabbert, despairing of making any change to the Apartheid machine quit the leadership in a fiery act of self-implosion it was again to Eglin that his shell-shocked colleagues turned to give the lead.
He remained party leader until 1988, however he didn’t have the best people skills to sustain this type of leadership. Affectionately known as ‘the Egg’, Colin Eglin had a sharp tongue and bit off many heads. His long-time colleague Helen Suzman admitted that his manner “put off a lot of people. Yet we all came back to “the Egg”, not only because he was a role model for progressives, or because of his intelligence and measured political judgment, but because he was a decent, very warm-hearted man, whom we held in great affection.
In 1988 his old UP friend, a veteran of democratic politics – Zach de Beer, took over from Colin as the newly elected party leader of the PFP. With seismic political changes on the horizon, in 1989 Colin Eglin focused on preparing his party enter into a meaningful role in South Africa’s democratic evolution, to do this he knew he needed other democratic bodies in coalition with the PFP – so he negotiated with the Independent Party and National Democratic Movement to bring together a new opposition to the National Party in parliament.
This resulted in the formation of the Democratic Party (DP) in 1989 and the dissolution of PFP. Colin was subsequently elected chairperson of the DP’s parliamentary caucus, and Zac de Beer took control of the reigns of the DP as leader.
Building Democratic opposition in a new epoch
In 1991, as the Democratic Party (DP) stalwart, Colin participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and served in its working group. Described by Nelson Mandela as “one of the architects of (South Africa’s) democracy”, Colin Eglin played a leading role in the drafting of the country’s post-apartheid constitution.
It was in CODESA at Kempton Park that Colin came into his own. It has been said that it was as though his life to then had been preparation for just this moment. Much of South Africa’s much praised liberal constitution is due to Colin’s clear grasp of the principles of liberal democracy and the constraints and provisions of those institutions charged with protecting and advancing these.
Colin’s negotiating prowess was recognised by Joe Slovo in particular and, when an impasse was reached, the two would get together and generally find a way forward and eventually, a worthy constitution was to emerge. His intellect, presence and engaging manner were recognised and respected by all in those crafting the new democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights in the tumultuous years of 1990 to April 1994.
Colin Eglin continued to serve in the segregated House of Assembly until it was abolished in 1994 after the historic democratic transition and vote in South Africa, and Colin then served in the multi-racial National Assembly as a DP Parliamentarian.
In November 1994, at the end of the first session of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, a small group of Democratic Party MPs had lunch in Pretoria with President Nelson Mandela to discuss some challenges affecting the new legislature.
On arrival, in the dining room at the official residence, Mandela arranged the seating with this instruction: “Colin, you sit at the head of the table – you are the senior man here in terms of service.”
Mandela was giving recognition to a veteran anti-Apartheid stalwart, a person who had first been elected to Parliament fighting Apartheid tooth and nail some 36 years before this luncheon and a person whose Parliamentarian career would even outlive Nelson Mandela’s own after the luncheon was over. It was some acknowledgement to ‘the Egg’ and South Africa’s democrats and Mandela knew it.
In 2000, the DP merged with other groups to become the Democratic Alliance (DA), which survives as the current official ‘democratic’ opposition to an African National Congress (ANC) government.
Whilst in the DA, Colin turned his attention on the new ‘Nationalists’ in Parliament, where the Afrikaner Nationalists (NP) were his previous foe, the African Nationalists (ANC) were his next. To Eglin – nationalism almost always meant one-upmanship of one nation over that of another, he had learned a bitter lesson in nationalism and all its inherent evils in the freezing hills of Italy in WW2.
His foresight to NP politics then were as applicable to his foresight on ANC politics now. Colin felt that the ANC government should focus almost entirely on decreasing the poverty gap in South Africa – and in so do two things – unleash the forces of enterprise to reduce unemployment and focus government spending on housing and education … and not on self-enrichment – here he felt the flawed ANC driven BEE ‘transformation’ programs only served to transform a ANC political elite to a ‘super-class’ and the ‘under-class’ and poverty-stricken would simply be left behind. He also fought the ANC’s bills and amendments to press freedoms believing them to be “a cover up of corruption, incompetence and nepotism”.
In one his final speeches, Colin Eglin is nothing short of pure prophesy – consider this when he said “Ironically the (ANC) government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy has contributed to the widening of the (poverty) gap, by creating a new rich elite, often of persons with strong political connections, and by leaving the millions of impoverished out of the empowerment process. These factors are having an impact, turning people away from the values that underpin our constitutional system, and eroding confidence in our democratic institutions. They are driving people towards populism as a cure for their problems. In short, they are undermining our new democracy.”
Colin Eglin retired from the DA and opposition democratic politics in 2004 and in the same year was made an Officer of the Order of the Disa, conferred on him by the Western Cape Provincial Government.
In April 2013, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Baobab, Category II (Silver) on Eglin for serving the country with excellence and for his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past.
Colin died at 88 years old on the 30 November 2013, his long time wife Joyce had died some years before of cancer in 1997 and he left his new partner Raili, three daughters and five grandsons.
As a leading politician and WW2 veteran of The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH), he was afforded a military funeral with draped coffin and the Guard of Honour was provided by the CTH. This short video captures his life and death and the respect he gained in opposition to the National Party and the ANC alike.
The peaceful road to democracy
Today, there seems to exist an opinion in the new political class in South Africa, that if you did not take up arms to fight ‘the crime of humanity’ that was Apartheid you were somehow derelict in your duty as a South African and somehow complicit in upholding Apartheid instead. This rhetoric is aimed at blaming white people for all of South Africa’s ills and demanding financial reparations from them. It’s an ANC and ECC narrative devised to whip up Populism and cover up their own inadequacies, crime and corruption – and its a narrative which is entirely misplaced.
The truth is that many ‘struggle’ organisations other than the ANC alliance fought against Apartheid, and not all of them had to resort to armed conflict to do so, Desmond Tutu and the Council of Churches, The Black Sash, the Progressive Federal Party, The Torch Commando, The Liberal Party, The National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the United Democratic Front (UDF), the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), the Council of South African Students (COSAS), Jews for Social Justice, The South African Congress of Democrats, The Federation of South African Women. Temple Israel, The Boycott Movement, The Natal Indian Congress and many many more all worked within the confines of the Republic’s constitution and the law to bring Apartheid to an end.
This included South Africa’s white progressives and democrats – starting with the United Party in 1948 and ending with the Democratic Party in 1994 who felt that the system in the long run could be changed from within if they stuck to it and fought it tooth and nail. Here’s the inconvenient truth – they were correct, in the long haul their work was as effective in removing Apartheid as any armed struggle, if not more so. Bold statement but its the real truth.
The truth of the matter is that an armed struggle did not really end Apartheid, the ballot did. There was no MK led ‘military victory parade’ over defeated SADF/SAP forces – and that’s because there was no military victory. The victory in the end was a moral one, and it was one in which democracy loving white South African’s played a key role – the first time white people were given a proper representative vote since 1948 (without National Party gerrymandering of proportional representation playing any factor whatsoever) occurred in 1992. The ‘white’ electorate calmly, with no overt pressure whatsoever voted Apartheid OUT and voted a full and representative democracy for all South Africans IN – and the did that in the Yes/No referendum of 1992 – two years before the so-called ’94 miracle’ – and they voted for Colin Eglin’s ‘democrats’ and enlightened National Party ‘progressives’ who backed the ‘Yes’ vote by a majority of 70% – that is a truth.
Without this ‘YES’ vote the CODESA negotiations would have been scrapped and South Africa would have continued on its ‘Apartheid’ trajectory – fact. It was white people using the peaceful means of the ballot which ended Apartheid and not the ‘armed struggle’, and they used it within the Apartheid ‘whites only’ parliamentary process – fact. Colin Eglin, Zach de Beer, Helen Suzman and the DP played a key role in this referendum and their life’s work ultimately ended Apartheid – without firing a shot – fact.
Who do you think you are!
If you had to play a game of heritage along the lines of the BBC’s ‘who do you think you are’, the DA’s political pedigree starts with Smuts’ United Party and the war veterans like Colin Eglin who fought for liberty and freedom and returned to South Africa only to become politicised when the National Party came to power in 1948. This is the epicentre of the DA’s beginning, a proud cocktail of the ‘democratic’ fight against Nazism, Fascism Apartheid and Nationalism. Colin Eglin is the ‘golden thread’ that links the DA to its wartime beginning and its modern values.
In July 2018, the townspeople of four villages in the mountains Italian Apennines acknowledged Colin Eglin, for his work in keeping the sacrifice of South African in Italy alive and relevant in South Africa. For his work in creating a living war memorial to the children in South Africa, for his ties and diplomacy with the Italy authorities looking after the South African war dead and keeping their legacy alive in the years of Apartheid’s isolation and for his tireless political work to bring peace and democracy to South Africa.
The unveiling ceremony was attended by Mayors of the surrounding Italian towns in the Apennines where the South Africans fought, Italian Military and Police officials, the South African Ambassador to Italy, and the South African National Defence Force Military Attaché to Italy all attended. In addition, 73 years on, the extreme gratitude of the Italian people (including their modern-day children) to the South Africans is still palatable – and it is all in honour of South African sacrifice and the values of the men who brought liberty to this far-flung part of Italy.
In addition to the named road, the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli has a war museum dedicated to the South African 6th Armoured Division, and a special display is in the museum to Colin Eglin and his long-time association with the town’s remembrance and historical preservation of South Africa’s fight against Nazism and Fascism – in his capacity of a long time South African MP and as a veteran of the Battle of Monte Sole himself.
Display dedicated to Colin Eglin at the war museum in Castiglione dei Pepoli, Italy.
The ‘Egg’ literally epitomised the road to democracy in South Africa. A road is anything that connects two points and Colin Eglin Road in Italy connects South Africa with Castiglione dei Pepoli in Italy, and under the title ‘Colin Eglin’ is a description in Italian ‘uomo di pace’ meaning ‘a man of peace’ – and nothing could be more descriptive of Colin Eglin and his politics.
He was a man who had seen war and chose to use peaceful means to fight Afrikaner Nationalism and Apartheid and won, eventually becoming a founding father of South Africa’s democratic constitution – a true democrat in every sense. South Africa now has a strong set of multi-racial democrats in the form of the DA still holding African Nationalism (now in a state of racial reverse) in South Africa to account, and it’s all a result of the road Colin took.
It’s highly appropriate that a road is now named after him where his political journey started, in the midst of the mud, death and misery of Smuts’ war against despot nationalism and the South African sacrifice to rid the world of it – and it really is a very long road which begins in the mountains of Italy and continues to South Africa, even to this very day.
Large reference and thanks to Peter Elliott and his article and photographs in the Military History Journal, Vol 16 No 2 – December 2013 ‘FOREVER A PIECE OF SOUTH AFRICA’ A return to the area of Monte Sole in the Italian Apennines By Peter Elliott.
References also include ‘Tony Leon remembers great soldier Colin Eglin’ by Tony Leon Colin Eglin’s speech Presented to the Cape Town Press Club A TRIBUTE TO COLIN EGLIN – HELEN SUZMAN FOUNDATION – Peter Soal , December 2013
My sincere thanks to the curators of the South African Military Museum at Castiglione dei Pepoli for the personal tour, insights and assistance, especially to Mauro Fogacci.
Here is a another fantastic colourised photograph of a South African WW2 hero with an extraordinary tale of heroism. Lieutenant Albert Sachs – a member of the South African Air Force (SAAF) who was seconded to No. 92 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Here he is seen sitting on his Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII at Canne in Italy.
This very heroic South African, known as ‘Bertie’ to his friends is best explained in his own Sortie Reports and Squadron Reports:
30 November 1943
‘I was flying Yellow 3. At 0935 I saw 10+ 109s and 190s which we had been warned of by Control, bombing along the secondary road parallel with the Sangro River towards the River mouth.
I dived on them and as I approached they turned and began straffing the road towards the mountains. I closed in on a 190 and fired several bursts from quarter astern and astern from 250 – 50 yds. He dived N.W. along the side of the mountain and after seeing strikes on the cockpit I saw the A/C (aircraft) half roll and it crashed in the vicinity of H.1898.
German FW 190
I then broke slightly up as a Warhawk was on the (Me) 190s No 2s tail. The Warhawk fired several shots none of which hit the E/A. He then broke up and I closed in on the 190 and fired a burst at quarter astern from 100 yds. getting strikes on the wing roots, as I was firing the Warhawk flew through my sights so I broke away and then lost sight of the 190. I then rejoined the Patrol.
I claim One F.W 190 destroyed. One F.W 190 damaged.’
Editors Note: the Warhawk referred to here is another Allied aircraft – the Curtiss P-40 – see below, the variants flown by the RAF and Commonwealth forces knew it as a ‘Kittyhawk’ (some variants also became knows as ‘Tomahawks’), the United States Air Force and other US armed forces called it a ‘Warhawk’ – see below.
American Curtiss P40 Warhawk
5 December 1943
On the 5th of December 1943 Lt. Albert Sachs scored the 99th and 100th victories for his Squadron when he shot down two Focke Wulf Fw 190s near Pescara, before colliding with a third Fw 190 and being forced to bale out.
The Officer Record Brief entry for 92 Squadron provides the following, detailed insight into this engagement:
‘Lt. Sachs destroyed two FW 190s and probably destroyed another. His story is an epic. He positioned himself behind the twelve-plus fighter-bombers while two others attacked the fighter cover. After destroying an FW 190 with a one-second burst, Lt. Sachs saw another on the tail of a Spitfire, so he turned into it, firing a 30-degree deflection shot, then fired again from point-blank range astern.
The aircraft blew up, and portions hit Sachs’ windscreen, smashing it, while another large piece struck his starboard wing.
FW 190s were then diving on him from both sides and one shell exploded on his tail plane, blowing off his starboard elevator. He turned toward another FW 190 which as attacking him at point-blank range on his port side, and felt a jar as he collided with it. The enemy aircraft dived away out of control minus its fin and rudder.
The attack continued and finally, after his elevator and aileron control were useless, Lt. Sachs was forced to bail out. He landed safely in his own lines within 60 yards of the wreckage of his Spitfire.’
Royal Air Force Spitfire Mk VIII
He was discovered by ‘friendly’ Italians and was able to return to his Squadron to fight another day. After a period as a flying instructor in the United Kingdom, Sachs, now a Major, returned to Italy to command No. 93 Squadron RAF from September 1944 to February 1945.
In September 1944 No.93 Squadron was moved from operations covering the D-Day (Operation Overlord) forces and moved to Italy, where it operated as a fighter-bomber squadron until the end of the war. At the end of the war the squadron took part in the occupation of Austria, before being disbanded in September 1945. Albert Sachs was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
Here pilots from No. 93 Squadron RAF Detachment under Albert Sachs command leave their dugout for a scramble at Nettuno, Italy. Leading the way, from left to right, are: Flying Officer E Stewart of Ipswich, Suffolk; Lieutenant J Marais SAAF of Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sergeant D Karck of Cockerham, Lancashire.
Salute to ‘Bertie’ Sachs, another very notable, brave and successful South African Air Force pilot of World War 2.
Researched by Peter Dickens. Photographer: Flying Officer B. Bridge B, Royal Air Force official photographer. Image and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, image and affectional caption work obtained from Colourising World War 2.
Did you know it was elements of South African armoured formations which were the first to enter the Italian city of Florence and given the honour of liberating it? Chances are most people would not have a clue, the honour given to military formations of liberating capital and regional capital cities like Florence during World War 2 was a very big deal, but sadly in South Africa this very big feather in our military cap is lost to the majority.
The very fact that the iconic worldwide heritage bridge in central Florence – the Ponte Vecchio – still stands is thanks to South African armoured regiments who were the first to get to it and secure it, when all the other iconic historic bridges of Florence were blown into smithereens by the retreating German forces.
Civilians clambering over the ruins of the Ponte Alle Grazia, one of the bridges over the River Arno destroyed by the Germans before evacuating Florence.
The latter half the Italian campaign during World War 2 was all about the race of various units and ‘nations’ to liberate a city, a great emphasis was placed on the ‘honour’ that a particular formation would receive for doing it, the American’s had the honour of liberating ‘Rome’ it was given to the American 5th Army who secured the centre, the American 1st Armored Division (old ironsides) liberated Milan and Bologna’s liberation is given to the Eighth Army’s Polish II Corps’ 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division.
So, unknown to many South African’s our military has the honour of liberating Tuscany’s regional capital – Florence, an honour simply not placed on the country’s ‘national christian’ education curriculum of the old national party (who regarded the whole episode of South Africa’s WW2 campaign as one of Smuts’ folly and treachery) and now not even on the radar for any young South African studying our history.
In setting the narrative straight and re-kindling this honour, let’s have a look at what happened and ‘whodunnit’.
The Liberation of Florence
In a nutshell, the South African 6th Armoured Division, fighting at the crucible of the Italian campaign against Nazi German forces, spearheaded the Allied advance into Florence in August 1944. They were followed closely by the New Zealanders and then the British forces – as this short news clip from United News at the time recalls.
On 20 July General Kirkman XIII Corps commander, issued orders for a “…powerful thrust to seize all crossings across the River Arno to the west of Florence.”This effort was to be concentrated on the 6th South African Armoured Division front. The advance was to be led by the South African Division with the 4th Infantry Division to its right, supported on the flanks by the 6th British Armoured Division and the 8th Indian Infantry Division.
The Allies advanced through Greve and were stopped by the German 4th Parachute Division on the River Greve on 24 July. The Allies had, however, outflanked the German Parachute Division, who then withdrew during the night of 24/25 July, allowing the South African, New Zealand and Indian Divisions to advance to the Paula Line which was reached on 28 July.
General Kirkman again placed the South African and New Zealand Divisions as the spearhead of his Corps advance, this time to break the Paula Line and to take Florence. By the 3rd of August columns of South African, New Zealand and 4th Infantry Divisions were advancing towards Florence. By 4 August, advance parties of South Africans and New Zealanders were exploring the outskirts of Florence to find that all bridges across the Arno River viable for military transport had been destroyed by the retreating Germans.
View of the damage to the Ponte Vecchio from the east. The German forces destroyed all of the bridges over the River Arno with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio before evacuating Florence.
A South African armoured patrol, made up of the South African Imperial Light Horse and the Kimberley Regiment raced into central Florence and found the smaller (and iconic) Ponte Vecchio bridge intact, they crossed it under heavy shelling, entering into the centre of the city at 4 am on the 4th August 1944, to be crowned as the first Allied troops to enter Florence.
This wonderful image captures the moment, here a Sherman artillery OP tank of the 22nd Field Regiment, South African 6th Armoured Division, enters Florence through the Porta Romano, 4 August 1944.
South African 6th Armoured Division entering Florence through the Porta Romano, 4 August 1944.
Over the years New Zealand have laid the claim of liberating Florence, and in that country it is a very big deal, however not to detract the New Zealand sacrifice (they were shoulder to shoulder with the South Africans in this particular fight) but is a sad fact is that nobody has really challenged New Zealand on this claim such is general apathy and lack of national pride in South Africa for our World War 2 sacrifice and battle honours.
South African tank crew in Florence, Italy on 7 August 1944 shakes the hands of cheering Italians welcoming liberation. From The Digital Collections of the National WWII Museum
The truth (and historic fact) is that it was a South African armoured regiment that secured the Ponte Vecchio bridge and entered the city first, it was the South Africans who were charged with the main spearhead and it is on both the historical record and media record at the time that the South Africans have the honour of liberating Florence.
So there you have it, another ‘Inside the Chappie wrapper’ interesting fact for the day and another reason to stand proud of South Africans. The beautiful and historic city of Florence, the jewel of Tuscany and its central pride, the medieval Ponte Vecchio – all now enjoyed by a grateful nation and the world at large as an international heritage site, and it’s largely thanks to a heroic bunch of South Africans.
Researched and written by Peter Dickens. Primary sources – Wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum. Images, Imperial War Museum copyright.
Movie Clip copyright. National Archives and Records Administration – ARC 39132, LI 208-UN-1013 – Allies Liberate Florence (1945). Series: Motion Picture Films from “United News” Newsreels, compiled 1942 – 1945.
The Household Division are very well-known for the spectacular marches they perform, in their distinctive red tunics and black bearskins, with ceremonies ranging from a daily Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to the annual Trooping of the Colour at the Horse Guards parade ground. However, for all the pomp and ceremony, the Household Division is actually a combat ready fighting division in the British Army and it has a very long list of Battle Honours, including ones shared with South African fighting units, and here a very special relationship has existed between ‘The Guards’ and South Africa.
The origin of The Changing of the Guard dates back several centuries, since 1660, Household Troops have guarded the monarch and the Royal Palaces. The Guard at Buckingham Palace is usually carried out by one of the five Foot Guards Regiments of the Household Division – the Grenadier, Coldstream, Welsh, Irish & Scots Guards. (They are identified by the number of buttons on their tunics and the plume in their bearskin head-dress). The mounted cavalry of the Household Division comprises the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals.
However, at certain times the honour of guarding Buckingham Palace is given to regiments and units of the Commonwealth forces, and that certainly is also the case with South Africa. Here members of the South African Coronation Contingent of 1937 take over guard duty at Buckingham Palace from 1 Bn Welsh Guards.
Yes, South Africans have had the honour of Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, however the history of the Household Division and South Africa has not just been a ceremonial one, a long history exists between The Guards and South African fighting units and it unveils a largely forgotten but very special relationship, where even some current South African military insignia carries with it Household Division accolade and honour.
So how did this unique history and relationship between the Household Division and South African Regiments and units come about, like many British regimental relationships with South African ones, this relationship starts with the Boer War.
The Boer War
The Household Cavalry Composite Regiment was the first unit to be sent to South Africa and served with the 2nd Cavalry Division throughout the first phase of the Boer War campaign (the ‘conventional’ phase). The 1st Guards Brigade consisting of the 3 Bn Grenadier Guards, 1 Bn Coldstream Guards, 2 Bn Coldstream Guards, and 1 Bn Scots Guards, also joined the force sent to relieve the siege of Kimberley. The Brigade took part in various battles in the northern Cape Colony to relieve Kimberley, leading up to Black Week 10-16 December 1899 – where the Boers gained the upper hand and the British suffered a number of humiliating defeats.
Life Guards during The Boer War
Following the ‘Black week’ disasters, more Guards were sent to South Africa to boost their numbers, two additional Guards battalions in fact, 2 Bn Grenadier Guards and 2 Bn Scots Guards.
As the war progressed, the two Boer republics were annexed by the British, and the Boer commandos reverted to guerrilla warfare tactics in a new second phase. To combat the ‘hit and run’ tactics of guerrilla war, the British then established blockhouses across the country to restrict the movement of the Boer guerillas. Mobile units were created to protect the forts and chase down the Boer Commandos. These included two Guards’ mounted infantry companies comprising recruits from all four regiments of the Foot Guards at the time.
Grenadier Guards at Magersfontein during the Boer War
After the end of the 2nd Anglo Boer War, May 1902, the Guards, both Cavalry and Foot, returned to the United Kingdom.
The Irish Guards has South African roots
The Sovereign’s fourth regiment of Foot Guards, the Irish Guards, owes its establishment to the actions of various Irish regiments in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. During ‘Black Week’, when the British experienced set-backs at the battles of Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso and Spionkop, the only comfort the British people could derive from these early disasters was that the soldiers had served gallantly and specifically the Irish regiments, especially at the Battle of Spionkop.
In an expression of appreciation for the bravery of the Irish Regiments in South Africa, on 1 March 1900, a letter to the editor appeared in the Sunday Times from Summing Macdona suggesting that the same honour be given them as was the case with English and Scottish Foot “ There are Scotch Guards and English Guards – why not add to the roll of glory a regiment of Irish Guards?”
Queen Victoria approved the proposal and on 1 April 1900, Army Order No 77 was issued: ‘Her Majesty the Queen having deemed it desirable to commemorate the bravery shown by the Irish Regiments during the operations in South Africa in the years 1899-1900 has been graciously pleased that an Irish Regiment of Foot Guards be formed to be designated the Irish Guards.’
General Poole and the Guards
After the Boer War, several South Africans either served with or were seconded to a Guards regiment. One significant South African officer of the South African Union Defence Force to do this was Maj. General William Henry Everard Poole. General Poole led the 6th South African Armoured Division during World War 2 in Italy.
General Poole and Jan Smuts
In 1935, as a temporary lieutenant-colonel and after a period as the Officer Commanding the Special Service Battalion in South Africa, Poole was sent to the United Kingdom, and attached to the Brigade of Guards. He spent time with three Guards battalions: 2 Bn Grenadier Guards, 1 Bn Scots Guards and 1 Bn Welsh Guards. Whilst serving with the Grenadier Guards, he took part in the Royal Review of the British Army by King George V and was presented to the King.
Poole’s experience with the Guards was to be cemented in the coming of World War 2, where an important association was to be formed, and detachments of Guards were to find themselves under South African command.
The Second World War – North Africa
During the June 1942 crisis in North Africa the South Africans and the Guards were rather unexpectedly thrown together. When the British Eighth Army withdrew from the Gazala line, only the Tobruk garrison lay in the path of Rommel’s the advancing Axis forces.
The Garrison at Tobruk was hastily put together and the defences were inadequate, however the task of defending it was put to the 2nd South African Division under the command of Maj Gen H B Klopper, under his command were also a handful of British and Indian brigades, including the 201st Guards Brigade, the main component of which were the Coldstream Guards.
Rommel quickly encircled the garrison at Tobruk and attacked from the weakest point – from the east. Tobruk fell and the South African 2nd Division were forced to surrender on 21 June 1942, however some 400 Guardsmen managed to escape capture and make it back to Allied lines.
Rommel inspecting South African and British POW at Tobruk
WW2 Italy – 24th Guards Brigade and the 6th South African Armoured Division
When the North Africa campaign ended in 1943, the Allied High Command took the decision to invade Italy, then ally of Nazi Germany in the Axis Pact. The 6th South Africa Armoured Division was eventually earmarked for service in Italy at the insistence of Smuts and Churchill. The Division comprised one armoured and one motorised infantry brigade, however due to the mountainous terrain of Italy it was necessary to add an additional infantry component to the Division, this fell to the British 24th Guards Brigade, comprising 5 Bn Grenadier Guards, 3 Bn Coldstream Guards and 1 Bn Scots Guards, all of whom were allocated to the 6th South African Armoured Division under South African command on 20 May 1944.
For nine months this close association existed between the Guards and the South Africans. Whilst under South African command, this association was described by Capt the Hon D H Erskine, the official historian of the Scots Guards, as ‘ … the happiest of the campaign – if not the whole war’.
The success of the association can be directly attributed the General Officer Commanding the 6th South African Armoured Division, Maj General William Poole, who had (as previously noted) been attached to the Guards in the inter-war years. In some senses it also ‘qualified’ him for command in the eyes of the Guardsmen, who by tradition had always been commanded by a Guardsman (this was the first time a ‘foreigner’ had commanded The Guards).
The British Guard Brigade fought with the South African Armoured Division until 17 February 1945. During that time, the high regard in which the 6th SA Armoured Division was held was manifested by the Guards in different ways. The regimental history of the Coldstream Guards records that ‘ … it was a marked breach of tradition for the men of the 3rd Battalion to wear a divisional sign, used as they were to sport only a Roman III on their sleeves; but even the most conservative was proud to wear on his battledress the green and yellow triangle of the 6th SA Armoured Division’.
3rd BN Coldstream Guards with 6th SA Armoured Division triangular flash
One Guardsman even felt it necessary to express his feelings for the Springboks in the following letter published in Division’s magazine, The Sable:
‘Hello Springboks! Somebody ought to tell you about yourselves, so why not I? !t’s a pleasure. I like you. Nobody with a red tab on his shoulders has told me yet how big the skyscrapers are in Cape Town and I haven’t heard yet that you are winning the war for us. You grouse as much as I do, and about the same things, but it’s always a private grouse and you keep it in the family. When we first got together, you knew us – mind you, we’ve been in British divisions who couldn’t tell one guardsman from another.
British troops generally are never unanimous in their opinions of anything or anybody – of course with the agreed exceptions but I’ve yet to hear any guardsman who doesn’t want to stay in “Our Div”. There’s a general satisfaction with the news that the flash is now on our vehicles, and that’s significant.
Yes, we’ve never been out of sound of your tracks and wheels since we came among you. Where a Sherman has not got to go, has been due to mechanical impossibility and you’ve proved it by trial. This may not be sound brasshat economics but it’s very convincing to the footslogger. Even if it means a tank out of commission, he knows you had a damn good try, and although I wish every mother’s son of you a speedy return to the kopjes and kloofs of sunny SA, I hope you’ll see the Guards Bde through these deadly hills first! – I’ll trek along with you.’
Coldstream Guards attached to the SA Armoured Div advancing in Italy
Members of the Coldstream Guards after battle for Monte Sole on the 15 December 1944. These tired and exhausted members of the Coldstream Guards were attached to the 6th South African Armoured Division, as they reach La Quercia on their way back to the rear for a few days rest. These men fought several days taking, losing and retaking a hill just under Monte Sole, South of Bologna on Route 6620.
At the farewell parade held on 26 March 1945, the Pretoria Regiment was permitted to wear the winged blue-red-blue flash of the Household Division, and it is still worn today behind their headdress badge.
The significance of the wings is that, on several occasions, the Regiment had managed to get their tanks supporting the Guardsmen into such inaccessible positions in the mountains that it was remarked that ‘ … they must have flown there.’ In appreciation, the Pretoria Regiment presented each of the Brigade’s battalions with a mounted impala head, the emblem of the Regiment.
Pretoria Regiment with Guards Colours and wings behind their beret badge
At the same parade, the 24th Guards Brigade provided the 6th SA Armoured Division with 9 company colour of 5 Bn Grenadier Guards and the commanding officer’s flags of 3 Bn Coldstream Guards and 1 Bn Scots Guards.
These flags and colour can be seen in the display featuring the 6th South African Armoured Division at the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
The Guards Chapel’s South African Association
On 18 June 1944 the Guards Chapel, located in Wellington Barracks in London, was hit by a V1 flying bomb. The bomb hit the chapel during a Sunday morning service and 121 people were killed. Much of the building was destroyed. As a token of their regard for the Guardsmen, the men of the 6th SA Armoured Division contributed £5 000 towards rebuilding the Chapel.
This gesture aroused the deepest feelings of gratitude throughout the Brigade of Guards.’ The gift was used to purchase new bronze doors for the main entrance of the Chapel and to renovate the mosaics in the apse. Today the bronze doors carry both the star of the Household Division and the green and gold flash of the 6th South African Armoured Division.
Unfortunately this strong association between South Africa and the Household Division has deteriorated somewhat. It started when the Nationalist Party Government came to power in 1948 with its proposals of Apartheid and its abject hatred of anything British (fuelled by deep seated Afrikaner resentment of British actions in the Boer War). To this end they re-established the Union Defence Force as the South African Defence Force when they withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, ‘British’ associations to South African regiments were either removed or reduced in the case of some Regiments to a more token association – either in insignia, name or relationship ties.
Much of this association was further lost in South Africa’s isolation years. To a degree some of these relationships were re-kindled post 1994, with South African Regiments invited to and attending key ceremonies and parades in the United Kingdom. However they remain relatively low key as the now re-configured South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has focussed its priorities on African issues only and gone even further to strip any ‘Colonial’ references from South African Regiments. New proposals have now been accepted to change or remove much of this association from the SANDF Reserve Regiments.
It is hoped that in all the political transformation of the SANDF, that the traditions and hard-fought for battle honours won by South African units with the Household Division, which were brushed aside by the Apartheid regime, are now properly rekindled and maintained.
However it is very unlikely at this stage given the current ‘transformation’ trajectory, and it is not a sentiment held by the British, who remain keen on heritage and have maintained it for Australian and Canadian Regiments associated with the Guards, but the will to reassert these links has to come from the South African military and political establishment themselves or they will forever be lost to modern South Africans.
Researched by Peter Dickens. References – Coldstream Guards in Italy = Photo by Baker. 3131 Signal Service Co.Â” Near Madonna della Quercia, Italy. 15 December 1944. Photo copyright of Guards and Pretoria Regiment SANMMH copyright.
Key extracts and photos taken from the Military History Journal, Vol 13, Number 1, June 2004 written by Allan Sinclair of the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg
Did you know that during World War 2, South Africa had a one-legged fighter pilot? This is the extraordinary story of Capt Douglas Smith “Doug”/”Shorty” Rogan DSO, DFC.
2 Squadron SAAF
Doug Rogan Joined the South African Air Force as a Permanent Force pilot and he served with SAAF 2 Squadron from September 1941 in the North African theatre of operations. 2 Squadron were known as the ‘flying cheetahs’.
He almost immediately started seeing some success when on the 12th October 1941, he damaged a German Bf-109 flying a SAAF Tomahawk Mk.IIb, however in the engagement he took some damage. He had another success later that month, when on the 22 October he logged his first confirmed kill of a German Bf-109F near Gasr el Arid, during the battle his SAAF Tomahawk Mk11b again took on some heavy damage, however he managed to get home and score his first combat victory.
By the next month on the 06 November he had further success in the Tomahawk and recorded his second confirmed kill, that of an Italian S.79 short down in the Matruh area. The S.79 had taken some punishment from other SAAF pilots, but Doug finished it off, so was accredited with the kill.
SAAF 2 Squadron Tomahawks in action by Derrick Dickens
Luck ran out for Doug late in November 1941. By this time he logged 60 “operation” flying hours, however during a routine operation on the 24th November he was Wounded In Action (WIA) when his Tomahawk received anti-aircraft ground fire, a 20mm AA shell struck Doug in his right leg. Severely wounded and losing blood, Doug turned for home and against the odds managed get both himself and his stricken aircraft back to base. So severe was the wound to Doug’s leg that his leg had to be amputated
Recovering in South Africa, Doug took inspiration from Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE, DSO (Bar), DFC (Bar). Douglas Bader was the famous Royal Air Force pilot who was a double leg amputee during the war, he was credited with 22 aerial victories. Bader had joined the RAF in 1928 and in 1931, while performing some aerobatics he crashed and lost both his legs. When war broke he insisted on flying, even as a double amputee. His determination saw him become a Battle of Britain icon using a “Big Wing” of fighters to attack enemy formations over England. He also became a Prisoner of War after he was shot down over France later in the war, and despite his disability he frustrated his German captors by embarking on a number of escape attempts.
With this proof positive account that pilots who had suffered leg amputations could still perform in combat, Doug focussed on getting back to flying, and back to combat flying. Col. Laurie Wilmot promised Capt. Doug Rogan that if he could be passed the “fit for flying” test with only one leg, he would see to it that Rogan got a posting “up North” again (i.e. back to the theatre of Operations in North Africa and Italy).
1 Squadron SAAF
Fitted with an artificial leg Doug resumed flying fighters with 6 Sqdn on home defence in the following year. After a check ride he passed his fit for flying test and was returned “up north” as promised. Back in combat flying he was posted to SAAF 1 Squadron in November 1942, known as the ‘Billy Boys’.
SAAF 1 Squadron Spitfire by Derrick Dickens
His return to operations was marred by a couple of errors up front, one occasion he took off with a mechanic still hanging on to his tailplane but managed to land without damage to either the mechanic or his Spitfire. Also, once landing in a dust storm his Spitfire hit that of another pilot’s already on the ground. He however began scoring again later that same month on 13th December 1942, he damaged a Bf-109G whilst flying a SAAF Spitfire Mk.V. By 1943 his victories started to stack up flying in the famous Spitfire Mk. V, 12th Jan he shot down a Bf-109G (probable), 21st Jan he shot down a MC.202 (probable) in the Castel Benito-Tarhuna area. By 27th March he attained a confirmed kill of a German Me 210 near Gabes. On the 08 May he is recorded as damaging an Italian Re.2001.
He was “Returned To Union” (RTU – meaning returned to the Union of South Africa) after his successful tour on Spitfires in August 1943, by this time he was with SAAF 1 Squadron in Sicily. In all is final score from the war: 3 Kills, 2 Probable, 3 Damaged.
On the 19th of March 1943, Doug was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions and bravery. In later life he became an air fighting instructor at 11 O.T.U. When he retired from the Air Force he took up residency in the beautiful little coastal town of Knysna.
Another unassuming South Africa hero not known to many now, a true role model and inspiration to any South African, those who have disabilities and even those who do not.
Written by Peter Dickens. Scorecard comes courtesy of Sandy Evan Hanes’ SAAF Data base. Story content and image provided by Tinus Le Roux on his SAAF Heritage site. Research provided by Sandy Evan Hanes and Warren Williamson. Artworks of 1 Squadron and 2 Squadron by Derrick Dickens (artist), copyright Peter Dickens.
Great ‘colourised’ image of Sherman Firefly tanks of ‘C’ Squadron, Pretoria Regiment somewhere in Italy in 1944 during Operation Olive. The Pretoria Regiment fought as part of 11th South African Armoured Brigade, 6th South African Armoured Division.
Operation Olive has been described as the biggest battle of materials ever fought in Italy. Over 1,200,000 men participated in the battle. The battle took the form of a pincer manoeuvre carried out by the British Eighth Army and the U.S Fifth Army against the German 10th Army (10. Armee) and German 14th Army (14. Armee).
In mid 1944 two Allied brigades took the Chianti highlands, Radda, Maione. The Guards took it by night, supported by the tanks of the Pretoria Regiment. By 20 July, General Kirkman insisted that the 6th South African Armoured Division lead the crossing of the Arno river but lost some tanks on the gravel due to heavy mining when supporting the 4th Infantry Division. Its flanks were guarded by the 8th Indian Infantry Division. Eventually, it crossed the river and captured Mercatale, defended by the German 356th Infantry Division who were supported by Tiger tanks.
South African 6th Armoured Division crossing the River Arno
Despite delaying actions by the German Parachute Division, the South Africans reached the Paula line on 28 July. Eventually, by Alexander’s decision, Florence was to be bypassed by the spearhead which constituted the South African and New Zealand Divisions. The Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment was the first to enter the city. Afterwards, the 6th South African Armoured Division was withdrawn into Eighth Army reserve near Siena. There it was resupplied, completed, and waited for a possible reinforcement of the U.S. Seventh Army for the assault of southern France in August, but was replaced at the last minute by the British 6th Armoured Division and resumed its operations in Italy.
The war was certainly not over for the South African 6th Armoured Division. It took part in the consolidation of the Arno bridgehead in September and prepared to assault the Gothic line. In the process, the Division was ordered to advance along Route 64 leading to Vertago and Bologna and to capture the twin peaks of Sole and Capara. Meanwhile, the Guard brigade met heavy resistance from the well dug-in German Lehr Brigade and two battalions of the German 362nd Infantry Division.
The 11th Armored Brigade was forced to fight dismounted due to the terrain. Finally, the German forces retreated to the Green line, and Operation Olive officially ended on 21 September 1944.
Caption courtesy WW2 Colourised Images and Wikipedia. Colourised Image copyright “Color by Doug”
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.
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.
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
Oddone 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.
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).
General 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.
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.
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 whilst serving in the South African Air Force, playing a shot 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.