An unsung South African hero; Cpl W. Cloete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum, reference wikipedia

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“War is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror”

There is an old saying: “War is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror” and here we see exactly that – aircrews sitting around waiting for instructions, once up in the air, literally in an hour or two they will be in full combat with all the stressors involved in it for only a quarter of an hour or so.

Here aircrews of No. 16 Squadron South African Air Force  and No. 227 Squadron Royal Air Force sitting in a dispersal at Biferno, Italy, prior to taking off to attack a German headquarters building in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. A Bristol Beaufighter Mark X, armed with rocket projectiles stands behind them. 14 August 1944.

The Bristol Beaufighter (often referred to simply as the “Beau”) is a multi-role aircraft developed during the Second World War by Bristol Aeroplane Company in the UK. It was originally conceived as a heavy fighter variant of the Bristol Beaufort bomber. The Beaufighter was a versatile aircraft used in service initially as a night fighter, and later mainly in the maritime strike and ground attack roles; it also replaced the earlier Beaufort as a torpedo bomber.  This tough and versatile fighter bomber served in almost all the major Allied forces of the war: Britain, The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Image and caption copyright Imperial War Museum Collection, additional references Wikipedia.

A tank called Jannie Smuts

Italy 1944, a crew of the Pretoria Tank Regiment, 6th South African Armoured Division, christen their Sherman tank with the names of Prime Minister, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, during their advance north of Rome.

Jan Smuts and his wife, Isie K. Smuts affectionally known as “Ouma” (Grandmother) by the troops proved incredibly popular to South African servicemen during the Second World War.  In part because of the compassion shown to the troops via the South African Gifts and Comforts Fund run by “Ouma” Smuts and the annual gift packs sent to all in service during the war.

The Pretoria Regiment featured here in Italy, went on claim great status as a fighting Armoured Regiment.  It was formed in Pretoria on 1 July 1913 as the 12th Infantry (Pretoria Regiment) – a unit of the Active Citizen Force – by the amalgamation of several units: the Pretoria Company of the Transvaal Scottish, the Central South African Railway Volunteers, the Northern Mounted Rifles and the Pretoria detachment of the Transvaal Cycle and Motor Corps. In 1928, it was renamed The Pretoria Regiment.

On 24 October 1930 it was once again renamed, to The Pretoria Regiment P.A.O. (Princess Alice’s Own). During World War II, the Regiment was converted to an armoured formation attached to the 11th South African Armoured Brigade, South African 6th Armoured Division.

In Italy the Pretoria Regiment (PAO) was the armoured regiment for the British 24th Guards Brigade (Grenadiers, Coldstream and Scots Guards) in the 6th SA Armoured Division. At the end of six months together, in honour of fighting prowess of the Pretoria Regiment (POA), the Brigade Commander obtained King’s permission for award to the Pretoria Regiment (PAO) of a theatre honour in the form of stylised wings in Guards Brigade colours.  This is carried on the Pretoria Regiment’s insignia to this day.

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After the Second World War the unit was demobilised, and in 1946 it was re-organised as a part-time force, consisting of two separate regiment-sized formations. These were re-integrated in 1954. After the establishment of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, the unit was again renamed The Pretoria Regiment by the South African Defence Force.

Since the end of compulsory national service in 1994.  As part of the SANDF Reserve the Pretoria Regiment now recruits volunteers from among former Reserve and Regular Force soldiers and focussing on University of Pretoria students, men and women.

Image Copyright Imperial War Museum Collection.  Image of insignia courtesy Dudley Wall. Reference – The Pretoria Regiment by Brig Gen (Ret) D Fourie and wikipedia

SAAF Pilot single handedly captures his captors – Lt. Peter During’s amazing story

This colorised image captures a must read story about a South African Air Force pilot who escaped from becoming a Prisoner of War (POW) by capturing his own German captors during WW2.  The image shows South African Air Force (SAAF) Fighter pilot Lt. Peter During (SAAF 7 squadron) with German prisoners in Italy April 1945, and this is the story of how he came capture them.

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Lt. Peter During was shot down behind enemy lines in Italy right at the close of the war,  he survived a crash landing and was promptly taken prisoner by the Germans.  Whilst been escorted to a German Lufwaffe Prisoner of War (POW) camp (he was a pilot and thus his interrogation and imprisonment was the responsibility of the German airforce), he opened a conversation with his captors.

He was quickly able to establish that they could already see the writing on the wall, that the war was at an end and Germany would loose it.  The Germans agreed with him that the best way for them to survive the war was to make it over to the Allied lines and surrender.  He then convinced his four German escorts that he was their ticket to survival and to become his prisoners.  They agreed and then changed direction and headed for the Allied lines instead.

It was a simple agreement really – if challenged by any German or other Axis Forces along the way the German’s agreed to say they were transferring an Allied pilot and continue on their way, and if challenged by Allied troops or the Italian Resistance fighters, Lt. Peter During would be given their MP-40 machine pistol and state he was transferring German prisoners.

On their way they stopped at several Italian houses for food and wine. One of the Germans had a camera and hence the photograph. In the feature picture you can see Peter has the MP-40 machine pistol while they enjoy a glass of wine with a rural Italian family hosting this odd group of men, whilst in other pictures the MP-40 has changed hands. Proof positive that there is some humanity in the craziness of war.

They made it over to the Allied lines, Peter During wrote them a note as to their good conduct which he gave to them as they went into captivity.  The camera was given to Peter for safekeeping as its owner knew it would fall into the wrong hands and be lost once going into captivity.

Despite trying on numerous occasions to track down these men Peter had “saved” after the war ended, he was unable to find them, thank them and reunite the camera with its original owner.  He printed the role of film to discover this priceless snippet of history.

If you want to hear this remarkable story from Peter himself, take the time to watch this video interview he did with Tinus Le Roux, it’s an absolute gem of South African military history.


Written by Peter Dickens. The photograph is from Peter During’s collection and it was given to Tinus le Roux, who has also done this fantastic job colourising it. Photo copyright Peter During and colouring credit to Tinus le Roux.  Video copyright and my deepest thanks once again to Tinus.

South African troops liberate Castiglione dei Pepoli and put an end to massacres in the area

Some little known South African military history that we can all be very proud of, take the time to read how South Africans are still appreciated to this day in Italy for saving a small town’s civilian population from been totally massacred by the Nazi SS.  This from 2008 issue of The Roman Forum magazine:

Marzabotto – An Italian town’s appreciation to South African troops for rescuing them from total annihilation after the massacre nearby townspeople by Nazi SS during World War 2.

Today, deep in the heart of Italy’s Apennine mountains between Bologna and the Po valley, in the communities of Castiglione dei Pepoli, Monte Stanco, Grizzana Morandi and the surrounding area local people gather annually not only to celebrate their towns’ emancipation from Nazi forces in the autumn of 1944 by the 6th Armoured Division from South Africa, but even to raise the South African flag in ceremony.

Their gratitude is so great, because this area was the site of the biggest, yet least-known, massacre of innocent civilians in Italy during WWII: the Marzabotto Massacre.

It was an exceptionally bleak atrocity for Italy, as it involved the extinction of an entire ‘race’- on 3 October 1944, German and Austrian SS troops were ordered to purge the entire area of Monte Sole and Monte Ruminci, because the townspeople of Marzabotto, Grizzana Morandi, and Monzuno were suspected of helping and supplying Italian partisans along the Gothic Line, which Hitler himself had ordered to be kept at all costs to sever south Italy and Allied forces from the industrialised and developed north.

Here Allied and German SS forces saw out the last winter of WWII, tired, cold, depleted, neither able to advance or retreat. Here is where the Allies eventually broke through the following Spring, spelling the end of the war in Italy. Before that, Nazi troops literally marched into every town and exterminated every living thing in sight. Women, children, young babies and the elderly alike were killed by gunfire and with grenades.

By sunset 3 October, Marzabotto’s and Monzuno’s unique population of mountain people, nearly two thousand people, were entirely exterminated.

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The SS then started moving into Grizzana Morandi and Monte Stanco herding the townspeople into two groups in no particular order. The first group (half the population) were slaughtered that night, the remaining group was to be executed the next morning.

On 4 October 1944, the executions had already started, when out of nowhere a group of Allied soldiers who had been sent to patrol and scout the area, unaware of the purge, appeared and engaged the SS in combat. After a long battle they managed to drive the Nazis off well behind the Gothic Line, saving the few remaining people of Monte Sole. This group of soldiers was the 6th Armoured Division of South Africa.

The South Africans had been the first Allied troops to arrive in the area; British, American, New Zealand, Rhodesian, Australian, and Indian troops arrived some three days later from the nearby American base in Livergnago (dubbed ‘Liver & Onions’ by soldiers) with food and supplies for the towns’ afflicted victims and set up Allied camps along what is today one of Italy’s most famous war commemoration sites – the Gothic Line.

Hence, the people of Monte Sole celebrate South Africa every year, because the few survivors (some even today), owed their lives to the 6th Armoured Division.

A new street connecting Castiglionei dei Pepoli and the entire area with the Bologna-Modena highway was unveiled in November 2007 was named in honour of the South African 6th Armoured Division.

(May 2008 issue of The Roman Forum magazine)

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Tanks of the South African 6th Armoured Division firing on German positions at Monte Sole and Montebello at the start of the attack which ended in the breakthrough to Bologna. April 1945.

Aftermath

The Marzabotto massacre was a mass murder of at least 770 civilians by Nazi Germans.  It is the worst massacre of civilians committed by the Waffen SS in Western Europe during the war.   The massacre was in reprisal for the local support given to the Italian Partisans and Resistance by the townspeople between 29 September and 5 October 1944,  SS-Surmbannfuher Walter Reder led members of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichesfuhrer-SS to systematically kill hundreds of people in Marzabotto. They also killed numerous residents of the adjacent villages of Grizzana Morandi and Monzuno.

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Walter Reder’s Trial

The Allies tried two Nazi Germans for the massacre, Max Simon and Walter Reder.  Simon received the death sentence which was changed later to life in prison, he was released in 1954 and died in 1961.  Reder was handed over to the Italians sentenced to life in prison, and released in 1985, he died in 1991

Remembrance

Claudio Chiste’, the Chairman of the South African Legion of Military Veterans – England branch visited the area to pay homage to this incident in October 2017 – here is the mausoleum and plaque dedicated to the 6th South African Armoured Division by a grateful local population for their rescue from systematic German massacre (note the triangular symbol which was the 6th South African Armoured Division’s insignia).

 


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary extract May 2008 issue of The Roman Forum magazine), additional source – wikipedia. Photo copyright and much thanks to Claudio Chiste’ for his dedication.  Additional image copyright, Imperial War Museum.

Battle of Monte Cassino – Italy

Famous LIFE colour photo taken after the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. May 1944 Allied soldiers – British, American and South Africans hold up Nazi trophy flag while combat engineers on bulldozers clear a path through the debris of the bombed out city.

The Battle of Monte Cassino was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Axis forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The intention was a breakthrough to Rome.

At the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri, and Garigliano valleys and some of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Together, these features formed the Gustav Line. Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. Lying in a protected historic zone, it had been left unoccupied by the Germans. They had, however, manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls.

Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was being used by the Germans as an observation post, at the least. Fears escalated along with casualties, and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins. Between 17 January and 18 May, Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops, the last involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front.

The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The capture of Monte Cassino tolled some 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded

Photographer: Carl Mydans – LIFE magazine. Reference wikipedia