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

When researching wartime memories of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women during World War 2, a couple of significant memories will stick out for them, the first time in combat, the loss of a friend or comrade, even where they were the day the war ended.

Perla-Siedle-GibsonBut more often than not only one iconic South African makes it into the distinctive personal memories of tens of thousands of British, South African and other commonwealth soldiers and sailors taking part in the war – and it’s not Jan Smuts, it’s a relatively little known soprano known only as the ‘Lady in White’.

The ‘lady in white’ in her day was a living legend, she had ‘sung’ her way into the hearts of thousands, but there is a very ‘unsung’ part of Perla Siedle Gibson’s legacy, and it includes her legacy as an anti-apartheid campaigner for democracy and political freedom in South Africa alongside Sailor Malan and his ‘Torch Commando’ – now not many people know that.

So who is this South African who is emblazoned on the narrative of World War 2 in a more memorable manner than just about any politician or military leader could ever hope for, who is this prima Anti-Apartheid campaigner and why is she not appropriately recognised as one of South Africa’s most significant women in our modern history?

Perla Gibson

Perla Gibson was a wartime national South African treasure – the famous ‘Lady in White’, Perla Gibson would sing to convoys of troopships, merchant ships and fighting vessels visiting Durban harbour during the Second World War – and her memory would sink into the hearts of servicemen and women the world over.

Perla Siedle Gibson was a South African soprano and artist, she was born in Durban in 1888 at the height of the Victorian era, the daughter of Otto Siedle, a prominent local shipping agent, businessman and musician of German extraction. Her two brothers Karl and Jack were well-known cricketers in South Africa. Karl was killed in the First World War and Jack went on to international fame as one of South Africa’s greatest test cricketers.

Diva07

As a young woman in the early twentieth century she studied music and art in Europe and the United States and gave recitals in London for Granville Bantock (a British composer) and Henry Wood (a conductor) and gave a rectitude in New York before returning to Durban and raising a family.

By the start of the Second World War, she was 50 years old, with her performance life well behind her and considerable worry ahead of her, for she had reared a military family. Her husband, Air Sergeant Jack Gibson was in the South African Air Force; her two sons, and only daughter, were in the army.

A really ‘Big’ audience and a ‘Big’ heart 

During World War 2 Durban was an extremely busy station for convoys of ships en route to the fronts in North Africa and the Far East. Of the tens of thousands of Allied men and women convoyed over vast distances at sea to these battlefronts most would often round the Cape of Good Hope and then work northeast along the coast to Durban as a final refreshing stop-over before finally reaching the ports servicing battle-fronts.

Durban would quickly become the busiest seaport on the South African coast and a way station on the ocean highway to the war. Through Durban came Commonwealth soldiers and airmen en route from New Zealand, Australia and training bases throughout South Africa and Rhodesia bound for Europe and points far to the east; American servicemen bound for the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Buna and Gona; wounded soldiers on hospital ships; British and American naval ships by the hundreds and thousands of battered merchantmen and not to mention tens of thousands of South African military service men and women off to and returning from war.

Lady-In-White-4

These were the stories of hundreds of thousands of men and women converging at some point on Durban and many would remember Durban as a place of not just bustling energy, but warmth and welcome.  But one person in their Durban experience really shines above all else – a short, stout woman all dressed in white, standing on the edge of the pier holding a megaphone and singing her heart out.

As each convoy of Allied ships passed through the narrow Durban harbour entrance, there she was, standing alone on North Pier, singing a welcome to them in her rich soprano voice. From April 1940 to August 1945, whether in the early dawn, wind, rain or the blazing sun, she never missed one convoy. Not even the one that sailed out on the day when she learned that her eldest son had been killed in action.

So how did this type of conviction and devotion to duty come about?

When Irish Eyes are Smiling

Gibson’s custom arose in April 1940 when she was seeing off a young Irish merchant seaman her family had entertained the day before. As his ship was departing he was said to have called across the water asking her to sing something Irish, and Gibson responded with a rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” a song made popular around the time Perla was studying in Europe.

After this she decided to sing to every ship connected with the war which entered or left the harbour.  In effect she became South Africa’s own ‘Vera Lyn’ – and in a twist she was even to meet and befriend Vera Lynn after the war.

10918995_396956767140728_4386674148378274085_n

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

Perla realised she could make a meaningful personal contrition to the war effort by boosting troop morale and it was the start of a ritual which she would continue doing as long as there were troopships to sing to.

From her small home on a hillside overlooking the harbour, she could see the daily comings and goings in the harbour—ships rounding the point, working up steam at the dock, or preparing to cast off. She would immediately get into her big Buick sedan and drive down the dockside. While security would not allow her to know in advance of ship movements, she was given a special entertainer pass that allowed her access to the secure docks. She took to wearing a sort of uniform—a plain white dress, a wide brimmed red hat and a red necklace. Whether this was a deliberate choice to allow sailors and servicemen to see her from far away as she sang them off, or was simply a wise choice to stay comfortable in hot African weather, we will never know. Soon however, her singing, her joyous personality and her great white and red presence earned her the admiration of everyone, worldwide fame and the title “The Lady in White.”

Never missing a beat

Perla Gibson would go on to sing to every ship that sailed into or out of Durban from April 1940 to August 1945.  She went on to sing to more than 5,000 ships and a total of about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen. Clad in her distinctive white with a red hat and necklace, standng on a spot where ships entering and leaving the harbour pass quite close, and singing patriotic and sentimental songs through a megaphone – which came from a torpedoed ship, and which grateful British soldiers had given her so she could be heard with more ease.

As the crowded ships passed into the harbour, men lining the landward rails saw ‘the lady in white’ singing powerfully through the gifted megaphone such popular songs as “There’ll Always be an England!”,”Land of Hope and Glory”,“It’s a long way to Tippereray”, “Home, Sweet Home”, “When the Lights Go On Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

Soldiers’ talk led to the fame of the Lady in White spreading around the world. A British army newspaper called Parade, dated 3 March 1945, described Gibson as a highlight of troops’ visits to Durban.

Life Magazine in 1944 recorded a “52-year-old Perla Siedle is South Africa’s No. 1 dockside morale-builder. Yanks call her “Kate Smith” and “Ma”; Poles have named her the “South African Nightingale”; and to Britishers she is the “Soldier’s Sweetheart” and the “Lady in White.”   The ship’s Captain “usually stands on the bridge and salute her as the ship glides by. Czechs and Poles aboard ship click their heels and stand at rigid attention”.  When welcoming American troops Perla “would sing The Star Spangled Banner”.

Life Magazine goes further to record:

The Yanks never ask for hymns although the British sometimes do. Australians always want Waltzing Matilda. South Africans like their own Afrikaans folksongs like Sarie Marais. Czechs, Poles, Greeks and other Continentals prefer opera, so for them she does arias from Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. For hospital ships, Perla gives extra long performances.

Diva09

It was not uncommon for troops on board a troop ship to goad Perla to sing more. “Hey Ma, sing us a song… Ma, come on, be a sport. Ma, give us Land of Hope and Glory Ma…” Perla was not perturbed, singing came easily and she would break into song. There would be a silence and then the troops joined in, their voices being heard above the hustle and bustle of wartime Durban.

For South Africans off to war she sang popular South African and Afrikaner songs, – like Bokkie and Sarie Marais. But her all time favourites were singing to the British servicemen the ‘Tommies’ Perla said of them “I adore British Tommies. They make you sing and sing and never let you stop. I once sang six hours at a stretch for them.”

Consider her impact from this memoir by a Merchant Seaman Gordon Sollors:

“The next thing I observed was one of those enduring memories, which we all have. As we sailed (majestically I thought) into the harbour, I had a vague idea that “something was happening” on the quayside. When I finally looked down and took notice of what was going on, I could see a person standing there, holding what appeared to be a megaphone (no such thing as loud hailers then!) The person was a “large” lady, dressed in a long, flowing white dress, and wearing an ENORMOUS wide brimmed red hat. Although she looked quite out of place among all the cranes, railway trucks, and all the other things that generally litter a quayside, she looked absolutely stunning.

She stood on the dock side calling “Hello there” through the megaphone to the soldiers as the ship came nearer to the quay. Once the soldiers heard her, and called back, she started singing the “patriotic” music hall type songs popular in those days such as Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, Pack Up Your Troubles and Bless ’em All.

She did all this in a superb voice through her megaphone. Had there been a roof, I’m sure she would have brought it down as the soldiers enthusiastically joined in. Not only was it a diversion from the very boring day to day life of the last four or five weeks on board the ship, it was somebody going out of her way to entertain them. There was also a nostalgic touch of “Old England” in the content of the songs. Such a performance would never have taken place in England, not only because of the secrecy, which necessarily shrouded troop movements there, but also because in general, the public was absolutely barred from dockside areas. It was a very moving occasion indeed”.

Diva04

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

R.H. Nicklin recounts in his book ‘Civilian to Sailor’ the importance of ‘The Lady in White’:

The thing that makes Durban stand out above all other places, and the thing that will always be remembered by me and every sailor that enters this harbour is “The Lady in White” and why? As Dorsetshire sailed into the harbour for the first time though the entrance I could see people standing on the jetty, but what stood out from all these people is a figure standing on something higher than the rest and dressed all in white. As we closed into our berth on the jetty I could see distinctly that the figure is that of a woman and she could be plainly heard singing through a microphone [sic] loud and clear “Land of Hope and Glory.” I can tell you that there wasn’t many sailors who didn’t have a tear in their eyes or a lump in their throat” …  “I know one thing she certainly gave my moral a boost and I only hope that I hear her a lot more times

Perla would never miss a beat she would even sing her husband, two sons and daughter off to the war from the harbour. When she got a telegram that her 26-year-old son Second Lieutenant Clement Roy Gibson was killed on 14 March 1944 while serving with the Black Watch, she put away the telegram and drove to the harbour and sang to the departing ships, such was her devotion to duty and emotional strength.

13450028_10154250644792329_4746410985414422490_nAn unsung icon of Liberty 

Perla’s strength, her sense of ‘duty’ and ‘conviction’ did not stop after the war either.  A little known part of Perla Gibson history is that she even took an active stand against the National Party’s plans to implement their policies of Apartheid after 1948.

In the early 1950’s she backed the returning war veterans’ mass protests against Apartheid.  As a high profile and recognisable personality of the war, Perla Gibson was standing shoulder to shoulder with Sailor Malan and participating and singing in Torch Commando rallies in defiance of the National Party and Apartheid.

Torch Commando - Cape Town

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

She was present next to Sailor Malan during the Torch Commando anti-apartheid rally in Cape Town during March 1952 in front of 10,000 South African World War 2 veterans and 50,000 civilians on protest, it was at this rally when Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government of;

“Depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.

15621711_689669251202810_5214791767668113011_n

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

Not afraid of the dangers which came with her political convictions, during the Cape Town “Torch” veterans carrying oil lit ‘torches’ of ‘liberty’ moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen. As tensions grew over the protest the National Party MP Johannes Streydom finally warned them that he would use the South African security forces against “those who are playing with fire and speaking of civil war and rebellion”.

DF Malan’s Apartheid government was so alarmed by the activities and broad-based support of The Torch Commando they acted as was their custom – decisively and crushed the movement with both legislation and direct threats to veterans livelihoods, whilst at the same time painting people like Sailor Malan and his supporters like Perla Gibson as ‘traitors’ because of their wartime support for Great Britain and their ‘unpatriotic’ stance to Apartheid.

The Torch Commando, South Africa’s first mass mobilisation protest movement against Apartheid (not the ANC) was eventually very effectively buried in an unrelenting smear campaign.  It was written completely out of South Africa’s school history books and national consciousness by a Nationalist government fearful of heroes been made out iconic military veterans in countenance to their grand plans of Apartheid. As a result ‘The Torch’ remains obscure and even inconvenient to the current narrative of the ‘Apartheid Struggle’ as it was primarily a ‘white’ movement and not a ‘black’ one.

A legacy to be remembered 

The National Party’s opinion aside, Perla Gibson’s value was sincerely felt by Allied and South African servicemen and women both in South Africa and the world over.  Perla Gibson sang at the quayside at Maydon Wharf for the very last time to a departing ship in February 1971. Very fittingly that ship was a British frigate with a South African legacy – the HMS Zulu. Her very last song, ‘wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’. She passed away just a week later on 6 March 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday.

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

To the Memory of Perla Gibson “The Lady in White” who sang to countless thousands of British Commonwealth and Allied Servicemen as they passed through Durban over the years 1940 to 1971. This tablet was presented by the Officers and Men of the Royal Navy.

When the North Pier was redeveloped the plaque and plinth was moved. In 1995 a statue to Perla was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II, it was commissioned in 1995 by Sam Morley who wrote the book “Durban’s Lady in White“. The statue was created by local artist Barbara Siedle, who is the niece of the ‘Perla Siedle Gbson, and it was originally placed in a prominent place next to the Emtateni Centre (which was part of the Ocean Terminal Building on the T-Jetty).  In June 2016 it was announced that the statue would be relocated to the Port Natal Maritime Museum as it was no longer accessible due to changes in the Ocean Terminal.  The statue was relocated next to the Britannia Room, but still within the harbour area.

durban-harbour-lady-in-white-perla-siedle-gibson-monument-at-passenger-terminal-3

The Perla Siedle Gibson Mobile Library was also founded to  serve British seamen on all ship and a 5 room unit at the Highway Hospice was created with funds raised in her memory.  The boarding establishment at Glenwood High School was named Gibson House after Roy and its colour is white in her honour.

In Conclusion

The memory of Perla Siedle Gibson left an indelible mark on those servicemen who experienced her performance, and her dedication to her task was legendary,  However her legacy is largely fading into memory in South Africa as greater socio-political events have gripped the country since the implementation of Apartheid, and the Nobel deeds of South African’s who went to war during World War 2 fall to the wayside and out of the national consciousness.

A real pity, considering Perla Gibson is one of South Africa’s most predominant women from our history, arguably one of the most well-known artists we have ever produced, and she is both a ‘wartime’ icon and even a ‘struggle’ icon.  She is at the moment a very ‘unsung’ heroine of liberty.

However, the nature of  modern media as to what it is, the truth will eventually ‘out’  – especially when it comes to our WW2 heroes and heroines like Sailor Malan and Perla Gibson, sons and daughters of South Africa who not only stood against tyranny of Nazism but also stood against the injustices of Apartheid.

Diva06

Related Works and Links

Vera Lynn and Perla Gibson The Forces Sweetheart & The Lady in White, two iconic women of WW2

Sailor Malan Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

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

SA Naval Sacrifice WW2 The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Information sources – Wikipedia Durban’s Lady in White: Perla Siedle Gibson by Durban Local History Museums, 30 January 2017 By Dave O’Malley. Gibson, P.S., The Lady in White, Purnell & Sons, 1964. Durban’s Lady in White. An autobiography.  Perla Siedle Gibson. Aedificamus Press, 1991.  Photos Richard Mallory Allnutt Collection and Wikipedia.  Dockside Diva by John Barkham — First published in LIFE magazine in 1944. Sailor Malan’s Revolt’ in Cape Town a war hero speaks up for freedom – LIFE magazine 25 June 1951.

Jan Smuts and South Africa’s sanctuary for Polish refugee children

Not many South African’s know this, but during the Second World War – Jan Smuts opened South Africa to care for Polish orphans and children traumatised and displaced by the war. Ouma Smuts also played a leading role in ensuring they were correctly tutored and continued to have high appreciation of their rich Polish cultural heritage.

Many in the Polish community in South Africa to this day can trace their roots to event and this very orphanage.  It is part of South Africa’s history on which we can all stand very proud.

18057148_1107301696081836_7782665359834755816_n

This remarkable British Pathé newsreel film accounts the children’s home in Oudtshoorn and the “new life” afforded to these Polish children, it brings to light the character of South Africa at the time – especially the care and benevolence shown by South Africa and the “Oubaas and Ouma” to displaced war refugees in Europe at the time of their greatest need.

Take the time to watch the film and know why, as South Africans, we can stand with pride in our country and the great deeds it has done.

Military assistance to Poland was not the only contribution, the government of Jan Smuts also provided a home in Oudtshoorn to 500 Polish children who had been deported to Siberia in the early 1940s by the Soviets when their country was divided between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

On 17 September 1939, two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, Soviet troops swiftly occupied the eastern half of Poland and, after a plebiscite, annexed the area to Ukraine and Belorussia. Beginning in the winter of 1939-40 Soviet authorities deported over a million Poles, many of them children, to the various provinces in the Soviet Union. Almost one-third of the deportees were Jewish.

In the summer of 1941 the Polish government in exile in London received permission from the Soviet Union to release several hundred thousand former Polish citizens from labor camps, prisons and forcible resettlement in the Soviet Union, to organize military units among the Polish deportees, and later to transfer Polish civilians to camps in the British-controlled Middle East and Africa. There the Polish children were able to attend Polish schools.

In 1942, the London government, acting through their Consul General Dr. Mi. Stanislaw Lepkowski, secured permission from General Jan Smuts to transport 500 children to the Union of South Africa In 1943, After they had been evacuated through the southern Soviet republics to Iran, the children were then brought to South Africa.

Polish Orphans in South Africa

The Polish Children’s Home (Dom Polskich Dzieci) was organized in Oudtshoorn for their temporary accommodation, care and education (located on what is now South Africa’s ‘Infantry School’ Army base(. It was run under the supervision of the South African Department of Social Welfare, as well as Polish consular and ministry representatives, it remained in operation until 1947.

This story can be seen at Ditsong Museum of Military History in an exhibit.  The story is outlined in this document Kindly provided by Stefan Szewczuk who is the President of the Polish Association of Siberian Deportees in South Africa. Follow this link  Oudtshoorn Polish Children poster 17 September 2012

Jan Smuts Polish Display

The Polish connection and story displayed at the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg

Related work and links:

Jan Smuts and Jewish Orphans; 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

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

National Party Orphans; The Nat’s Nazi German orphan adoption program .. some good results, some very bad!


Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Film copyright African Mirror and British Pathé, Colourised image of Jan Smuts by Marianne Jerome Kristal.

Britain never ‘stood alone’!

It’s widely reported now that Britain “stood alone” at the beginning World War 2, especially after the Battle at Dunkirk. However this is not strictly true (for a short while after the fall of Dunkirk, it may have felt like it, but it was not the case) very quickly coming to aid Britain “in her hour of need” and reinforce her troops, airman and seamen were the armed forces of the British Commonwealth – and not only the armed forces but also the raw materials and industry of the likes of Australia, India, South Africa and Canada – an all in effort to aid the United Kingdom, push back the advances of Fascist and Nazi thinking and change the course of European history.

It’s generally misunderstood – but within a day of the United Kingdom and France declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939, New Zealand, Rhodesia and Australia had declared war on Germany as well. It was just 3 short days later that an independent parliament in South Africa declared war on Germany on the 6th September 1939 (very early on if you think about it – the sixth country to declare war on Nazism). Quickly followed by Canada’s independent parliament who just four days after South Africa’s declaration also declared war on Germany – 10th September 1939.

ec870169d927bce4a8e213eb015ec886On the eve of World War II the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. Though closely allied with Great Britain as a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with the British king as its head of state, South Africa had as its Prime Minister on 1 September 1939 Barry Hertzog, the leader of the pro-Afrikaner anti-British National party that had joined in a unity government as the United Party.

Herzog faced a problem: South Africa had a constitutional obligation to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if attacked by the Nazis.

After Hitler’s forces attacked Poland on the night of 31 August 1939, Britain declared war on Germany (3 September). A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa, that pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain’s side led by the pro-Allied, Afrikaner, ex-Boer War General, and former Prime Minister Jan Smuts, against then-current Prime Minister Barry Hertzog, who wished to keep South Africa “neutral”, if not even pro Nazi Germany in the hopes Germany would win (as Germany had sided with the Boer Republics during the Boer war there was a groundswell in the Afrikaner right politics in support of Nazi Germany).

On 4 September 1939, Hertzog’s motion to remain out of the war was defeated in Parliament by a vote of 80 to 67, he resigned, and Smuts became Prime Minister of South Africa and declared South Africa officially at war with Nazi Germany and the Axis.

12509723_536128123223591_2929433976375636116_nTo celebrate Smut’s victory in Parliament that day a special button/lapel badge was made inscribed with 4-9-1939 for the party faithful.

Smuts immediately set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa’s global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.

RhodesianPostcard001A very interesting part of the sequences of declarations of war against Germany, was that of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and it stands out as a unique one.  The Southern Rhodesian government almost immediately followed the British declaration of war with their own.  They can even be said to hold the mantle as the very first of the British Dominions and Colonies to stand by Britain in their hour of need.  Steadfast and swift in support of their ‘motherland’ – The United Kingdom, no quibble about it either, as there was no long parliamentary debate over the issue – it came without even a second thought on the matter. In all 26 000 Rhodesians volunteered to fight during World War 2.

The irony is that when Rhodesia ‘stood alone’ in an armed onslaught in the 60’s the country to abandon them was in fact the United Kingdom, forcing them to declare unilateral independence of Britain.  A fact not missed on the rather cynical ‘old Rhodesians’ today who remember their WW2 sacrifices with a very real sense of treachery, and it’s a fact missed on the British public today.

Today, some South Africans often point to Britain ‘abandoning’ South Africa when its armed insurrection started in the mid 1960’s as well.  However they are quick to forget that the very ‘anti-British’ National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961 and strained all ties.  South Africa ‘stood alone’ on the Nationalists policy of Apartheid and there was nothing the British could really do about it. However to the Rhodesians there is deep cause for unhappiness as they never wanted to abandon any of their British ties whatsoever.

1551745_243308472505559_1055161002_nIn terms of the semantics of the ‘term ‘standing alone’ after Dunkirk, in many cases the Commonwealth countries did not have immediate operational readiness to come alongside the UK in the summer of 1940.  However we must remember that the Battle of Britain (when Britain really ‘stood alone’) was an air battle, where a ‘few’ pilots held off the German assault – and alongside the 2353 British pilots stood 574 pilots from other countries – 24%, – a quarter of the combat force.  Most of them came from the Commonwealth countries (342 pilots in total including Rhodesians and South Africans). So Britain never really ‘stood alone’ in that context either.

So, in conclusion, the idea that following Dunkirk, Britain stood alone against a tidal Nazi onslaught is quite incorrect.  However due to changing geo-politics, what is dissapointing now is that memory of the sacrifice of men and women from countries like India, Kenya, South Africa and Rhodesia are fading fast in the general populations – in their own countries and in the United Kingdom.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


Source – wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica

“Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

History is always a three-way prism. As with South African statute forces fighting “communism” on two fronts – the Angolan Border “Bush” War and the internal “struggle” movements in the 70’s and 80’s – so it was during the Second World War as well, this time the “struggle” movement was a little different and South African statute forces were fighting Fascism and Nazism (National Socialism) on two fronts, both on the international stage and on the domestic front at home.

Little is known of the domestic conflict during World War 2 as it was effectively shielded and even erased from the state’s educational history curriculum – to the point that little is known about it by subsequent generations of South Africans even to this day. By far the biggest of all the domestic pro Nazi organizations in South Africa at this time was a movement called the “Ossewabrandwag” (abbreviated to “OB”).

The feature image shows a Ossewabrandwag rally and its leadership along with an inserted emblem of the organization. Read on for a fascinating and relatively unknown part of South African military history.

Background and formation

screen-shot-2016-03-05-at-16-38-42The Ossewabrandwag (OB), meaning in English “Ox-wagon Sentinel” was an anti-British and pro-Nazi German organization in South Africa during World War II. It was officially formed in Bloemfontein on 4 February 1939.

As a background to it, in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), Britain conquered the Boer Republics. Germany supported the Boer cause. After the war, there was a general reconciliation between Afrikaners and Britain, culminating in the formation of the ‘Union of South Africa’ in 1910, under the leadership of former Boer fighters, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts (who was of Cape Dutch origin fighting on the side of the Boers). South African troops, including thousands of Afrikaners, served in the British and South African Union forces during World War 1 and again in World War 2.

Nonetheless, many Boers from the ex Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics remembered the extremely brutal tactics used by Britain in the Boer War and remained resentful of British rule. They were especially resentful of the concentration camp and scorched earth policies engaged by the British to bring to bring an end to the guerilla tactics used by “Bitter einders” at the close of the war.

In the 1930’s the chief vehicle of Afrikaner nationalism was the ‘Purified National Party’ of D. F. Malan, which later became the ‘National Party’. As in 1914, the Second World War appeared to a relatively small group of far right-wing Afrikaner nationalists as a golden opportunity to establish Afrikaner nationalist rule and move to make South Africa a republic independent of Britain.

‘We are now ceaselessly on the road to our goal: the Republic of South Africa – the only status under which we can truly exercise the right to self-determination as a country,’ said D.F. Malan on 6 September 1939 at the on-set of the Second World War.

Prior to this, 1938 was also the centennial anniversary of the ‘Great Trek’ (the migration of Boers to the interior). The Ossewabrandwag was established in commemoration of this ‘Great Trek’. Most of the migrants traveled in ox-drawn wagons, hence the group’s name. The group’s leader was Johannes Van Rensburg, a lawyer who had served previously as Secretary of Justice and was an admirer of Nazi Germany.  The OB at the on-set of the centennial was loosely associated to Malan’s National Party.

The relationship with the National Party 

There were however sharp differences between van Rensburg and D.F Malan over the right course of action to be followed when South Africa declared war on Germany in 1939. Both believed that everything depended on the outcome of the war, both believed that Germany would win it, however Malan relied on negotiation with Germany to achieve his objectives, van Rensburg on the other hand believed that at some stage freedom would have to be fought for and began to formulate a militant opposition to the South African government to undermine South Africa’s war effort.

At first, relations between the National Party and the Ossewabrandwag were cordial, with most members of the Ossewabrandwag belonging to the party as well. At the higher levels, National Party leaders like P.O. Sauer and F. Erasmus (later to be made Cabinet Ministers when Malan came to power) were members of the OB.

Three future National Party South African Prime Ministers/State Presidents held key leadership positions in the Ossewabrandwag. ‘Generals’ like C.R. Swart (later South Africa’s first State President) was a member of the Groot Raad (Chief Council) of the Ossewabrandwag, B.J. Vorster (later to become Prime Minister of South Africa) was a keynote OB leader and formed the OB’s Cape Branch and even PW Botha (future South African State President) joined the Ossewabrandwag and worked with Vorster to establish the OB’s Cape branch.

Other National Party stalwarts where also prominent in the Ossewabrandwag organisation, Eric Louw, for example – who later to become the National Party’s Foreign Minister.  That to say the National Party and the Ossewabrandwag were, to coin a phrase, “two peas in the same pod” is an absolute truism.

Combining the impact of the war and the very dynamic personality of van Rensburg, the Ossewabrandwag soon grew into a significant force, a mass movement whose membership at its peak was estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 members.

The relationship between the Ossewabrandwag and National Party at first was very well-defined and D.F. Malan even met with OB leaders in Bloemfontein which resulted in declaration known as the ‘Cradock Agreement’. It specified the two operating spheres of the two respective organizations. They undertook not to meddle in each others affairs and the National Party endeavoured to focus on Afrikanerdom in the party political sphere, while the Ossewabrandwag was to operate on the other fronts of the ‘volk’ (white Afrikaans people’s).

‘Nazification’ of the far right 

In 1940 the Ossewabrandwag created within in structures an elite organization known as the Stormjaers – the storm troopers of Afrikanerdom. The formation of the Stormjaers (English meaning: Assault troops) was in essence a paramilitary wing of the OB. The nature of the Stormjaers was drawn upon the lines of Nazi Germany’s army “Storm troopers”, as were the fascist rituals and salutes, this is evidenced by the oath sworn in a by new recruits (in some instances a firearm was levelled at them whilst they read the oath): “If I retreat, kill me. If I die, avenge me. If I advance, follow me” (Afrikaans: As ek omdraai, skiet my. As ek val, wreek my. As ek storm, volg my).

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-11-17-41

Johannes van Rensburg been sworn into the Ossewabrandwag

The Stormjaers were deployed in variety of military operations ranging from the defence of Nationalist political platforms to pure sabotage, they dynamited post offices and railway lines and cut telephone wires. Van Rensburg even wrote “The Ossewabrandwag regards itself as the soldiery of the (South African) Republic . . . the Ossewabrandwag is the political action front of Afrikanerdom.”

The ideologies of the Nazis were penetrating deep into right-wing Afrikaner political identity.  In 1940, directly after Nazi German decisive victories in Europe, Otto du Plessis (later to become Administrator of the Cape under the National Party) published a pamphlet – The Revolution of the Twentieth Century – in which he openly espoused the Ossewabrandwag’s policy of totalitarianism.

B.J. Vorster’s brother, Rev. Koot Vorster, who was a Dutch Reformed Church minister, was also a predominant Ossewabrandwag leader. He summed up the pro-Hitler and Pro-Nazi standpoint of the OB during an address to a student group on September 15, 1940:

book_mein_kampf_verlag“Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ shows the way to greatness – the path of South Africa. Hitler gave the Germans a calling. He gave them a fanaticism which causes them to stand back for no one. We must follow this example because only by such holy fanaticism can the Afrikaner nation achieve its calling.”

Kowie Marais, an OB member, years later recalled in an interview the admiration he and his friends held for Hitler: “We thought he (Hitler) might rejuvenate western civilization…against the communist-socialist trends that were creeping in from the east. We thought it was the dawn of a new era.”

Oswald Pirow also publicly identified himself with National-Socialist doctrines and Nazi Germany and established the Nazi expansionist ‘New Order’ movement inside the ranks of the former Hertzogites.

There even existed South Africa’s own Nazi party called the SANP and it’s militant wing the “Greyshirts” led by Louis Theodor Weichardt (who later became the National Party Senator for Natal). This pure Nazi movement had 5000 odd loyal followers.

Van Rensburg from the OB had always professed been a National Socialist, as an open admirer of Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler, and the ideas and rituals of membership put forward by his organization had a distinctive Nazi leaning as a result.

According to OB political thinking, Afrikaans would be the only official language in a free, independent, Christian-National Republic. The English-speaking South Africans, regarded as an “un-national” element, would be condemned to an inferior status. Anti-Communism was an important backbone of OB policy in line with Nazi hatred of communism.

The emphasis of the OB was also on race and racial purity. Members were exhorted to ‘think with your blood’, and the Nazi creed of ‘Blut und Boden’ (Blood and Soil) was promoted as an OB value. ‘Family, blood, and native soil – that is, next to our religion and our love of freedom, our greatest and our most sacred national heritage’ (Die O.B. 28 October 1942).

The OB always displayed an exaggerated interest in physical culture and the need for dictatorial discipline. “Give us a master ! Give us bonds which tie us to a stable way of life” wrote van Rensburg.

On issues of family value, the leaders of the OB proclaimed that the duty of the man was to work and fight and the duty of the woman to create and tend the home and family.

In essence the Ossewabrandwag was based on the Führer principle, fighting against the British Empire, anti capitalist – they called for the expropriation of “British-Jewish” controlled capital, the communists, the Jews and the system of parliamentarism. All based on the principles national socialism.

An irony is not lost here, in modern South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) now call this ‘British-Jewish controlled capital’ a new name – ‘white monopoly capital’ and call for the same capture of this elusive capital as a justification for their cause too.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 16.38.22

Johannes van Rensburg at a Ossewabrandwag torch rally

Insurrection 

From the outset of the war a series of violent incidents took place between statutory force South African soldiers and the Ossewabrandwag. This was to cumulate on Friday 31 January 1941, when van Rensburg was due to hold a meeting at the Johannesburg City Hall when a riot broke out between OB Stormjaers and South African Union Defence Force soldiers who were determined not to allow van Rensburg to have a platform for his support of Nazi Germany – with whom they were now at war with.

The Stormjaers were armed with sticks,pipes, batons, knives, sjamboks and even bicycle chains, while the soldiers were for the most part unarmed and the battle raged in downtown Johannesburg for two days. Armoured cars were brought in while enraged UDF soldiers set fire to Nationalist newspaper offices and set police vans alight. Tear-gas canisters were hurled in every direction between the two antagonists and the Police.

Before a commission of inquiry on the Johannesburg riot, van Rensburg declared that it was only OB discipline and restraint which had prevented reinforcements in outlying areas from being brought into town and broadening the scope of the battle.

In support of OB activities the National Party even came out in direct support of the OB against Smuts’ government resolution to detain and ban members of the OB. Dr D.F. Malan defended the OB in a speech on 5 March 1941, saying:

“The Ossewabrandwag has been accused of lending itself to subversive activities and also of encouraging them. Now I say: Carry out your threat. Ban it. Prevent it and prevent its meetings. If the Ossewabrandwag decides to be passively disobedient and refuses to be dissolved . . . I shall share the consequences with the Ossewabrandwag. At this stage I am prepared to say to you that if the government decides upon that act and the Ossewabrandwag decides not to submit, I shall keep my pledge”.

It was a clear sign to Smuts’ government that unity in the ranks of the Afrikanerdom movements was as unified as ever since the outbreak of the Second World War.

To give an idea of sabotage and violent attacks, at the height of the Second World War – 1942, Ossewabrandwag Stormjaer activities included:

Explosions over a large area of mines at Klerksdorp, Vereeniging, Delmas and in Potchefstroom the OB blew up power lines – 29 January 1942. All telegraph and telephone communication between Bloemfontein and the rest of South Africa were dislocated in one attack in February 1942.

Railway, telegraph and telephone lines in various parts of the Free State were destroyed in February 1942. Fifty-eight Stormjaers were eventually charged with high treason, and a quantity of hand grenades were found. Stormjaers also blew up two telephone poles behind the Pretoria Central Jail, but were never captured.

10402583_560135767489493_4510500168473141319_nTwo other Stormjaers, Visser and van Blerk were convicted of a bombing at the Benoni Post Office, as a result of which an innocent bystander was killed, they were both sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

A few members of the OB were shot while trying to escape from internment camps or jails, the most known was the dramatic pursuit OB General, Johannes van der Walt, who was shot while on the run near Krugersdorp.

A number of arms cache’ and hiding places for the Stormjaers can still be found, the inserted picture shows Ossewabrandwag graffiti in a cave in the Excelsior area.

B.J. Vorster

One very predominant leader of the Ossewabrandwag was Balthazar Johannes (B.J.) Vorster, South Africa’s future Prime Minister. Along with like-minded OB colleagues he regarded the war as an opportunity to get rid of the hated domination of the United Kingdom of South Africa and welcomed the Nazis as allies in their fight.

The firebrand nature of the Ossewabrandwag appealed to Vorster more than the National Party, so while South African troops were helping to make the world safe from Hitler’s National Socialism, Vorster was appointed as a ‘General’ in the Ossewabrandwag for the Port Elizabeth district to promote the National Socialism doctrine back home. On his politics he famously announced the Ossewabrandwag’s position on Nazism and said in 1942:

‘We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism. You can call this anti-democratic principle dictatorship if you wish. In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism and in South Africa, Christian Nationalism”.

vorster

BJ Vorster addressing a OB meeting

Vorster was eventually arrested under the emergency regulations in September 1942, he immediately went on hunger strike and after two months was transferred to Koffiefontein internment camp as prisoner No. 2229/42 in Hut 48, Camp 1. B.J. Vorster was eventually released on parole in January 1944 and placed under house arrest.

Interned alongside BJ Vorster was another Ossewabrandwag member Hendrik Johan van den Bergh who eventually went on to found the Bureau of State Security (B.O.S.S.), an intelligence agency created under the National Party on 16 May 1969 to coordinate military and domestic intelligence. Van den Bergh was to become known as the “tall assassin” given his physical height.

Direct German intervention

The German Nazis themselves saw the activities of the Ossewabrandwag as very positive to their fight. Van Rensburg was even played up over Zeesen radio as the real leader of the Afrikaner people.

In June 1941 Robey Leibbrandt was landed from a German yacht on the Namaqualand coast with 10,000 dollars, a radio transmitter, and instructions to make contact with van Rensburg and investigate the possibilities of joint action with the Ossewabrandwag. His mission, overseen by German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was Operation Weissdorn, a plan for a coup d’état to overthrow the government of General Jan Smuts,

Leibbrandt was a South African Olympic boxer who later came a fervent Nazi follower. He joined the German Army, where he became the first South African to be trained as a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) and glider pilot. Leibbrand was trained with comrades of the Brandenburgers at a sabotage training course of Abwehr II (Abwehrschool “Quenzgut”) near Brandenburg an der Havel, west of Berlin.

Once in South Africa he soon made contact with the Stormjaers and was brought to Pretoria to see van Rensburg.

Nothing, however, came of the negotiations. Leibbrandt’s megalomania was enough to deter anyone from cooperating with him, and van Rensburg refused to be drawn. At the same time Leibbrandt’s fanaticism attracted a number of members of the Ossewabrandwag over to his side, and within a short while Leibbrandt was leading his own group, whose members were bound to one another by a blood oath which partly read:

“All my fight and striving is for the freedom and independence of the Afrikaner people of South Africa and for the building up of a National Socialist State in accordance with the ideas of Adolf Hitler.”

The quite truce between Leibbrandt and van Rensburg quickly developed into open hostility. Leibbrandt, disappointed that the OB did not officially support his mission and its resultant failure began to openly attack van Rensburg as an ‘agent’ of Smuts. This sealed his fate. After a few months in South Africa he was ‘sold out’ by OB insiders, his location now known to the Smuts government, he was arrested, together with a number of leading Stormjaers.

Placed on trial Leibbrandt was sentenced to death for treason, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after much lobbying from Afrikaner Nationalist organisations.  Mindful of the deep-seated split in his own Afrikaans community, to quote Jan Smuts at the time his sentence was commuted to life “I did not want the blood of another Jopie Fourie on my hands”.

The Stormjaers sabotage activities were getting too violent for DF Malan’s National Party policy of negotiated settlement with Germany when (and if) they won the war. Many of these acts of violence were going too far for the majority of moderate Afrikaners, and Malan ordered the National Party to break all ties with the OB later in 1942.

The South African Union government then cracked down heavily on the OB and the Stormjaers, placing thousands of them in internment camps for the duration of the war.

Summing up the achievements of the Ossewabrandwag’s campaign of sabotage, van Rensburg wrote this in his autobiography which was published after the war:

“I fought (Smuts’) war effort and I fought it bitterly with all the means at my disposal – which were considerable…. There is no doubt that they (the Ossewabrandwag) seriously hampered the government’s war effort. Hampered it because the government was forced to draw off considerable manpower to guard many strategic points and essential services. A not inconsiderable military element also had to be retained in South Africa as a strategic reserve for possible emergency.”

At the end of the war, the Ossewabrandwag was absorbed back into the National Party and ceased to exist as a separate body, many of its members achieving political notoriety as members of the National Party government on their accent to power with the National Party electoral win over Smut’s United Party in 1948.

Returning war veterans react

Imagine the sheer frustration felt by the veterans after “The War for Freedom” (as WW2 was known) had been fought with the massive cost in South African lives (literally tens of thousands), to rid the world of Nazism and Fascism in the “good fight” – only to come home in 1945 and within three short years find the “home grown” pro Nazi Germany and pro Nazi philosophy politicians swept into government. The very men and their philosophy they had gone to war against in the first place.

By the early 1950’s the South African nationalist government was littered with men, who, prior to the war where strongly sympathetic to the Nazi cause and had actually declared themselves as full-blown National Socialists: Oswald Pirow, B.J. Vorster, Hendrik van den Bergh, Johannes von Moltke, P.O. Sauer, F. Erasmus , C.R. Swart, P.W. Botha and Louis Weichardt to name a few, and there is no doubt that their brand of politics was influencing government policy.

Louis Weichardt – left, Oswald Pirow, right

Louis Weichardt was the South African Nazi ‘grey-shirts’ founder (later became a National Party MP see earlier Observation Post Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”) and Oswald Pirow (Nazi ‘New Order’ founder in South Africa) inspecting German Luftwaffe troops on a “unofficial” visit to Nazi Germany – later he became a key Public Prosecutor under the National Party (See earlier Observation Post South African Pro Nazi movements – Oswald Pirow’s New Order )

Also by the early 1950’s, this state of affairs in the make up and philosophy underpinning South Africa’s ‘new’ ruling party, led to open Anti-Apartheid protests from the South African military veterans community – in their tens of thousands, led by Adolph “Sailor” Malan and other returning war heroes in “Torch Commando rallies” (The Torch) and it ultimately led to the marginalization of South African war veterans, their veteran associations and the ultimate suppression of anti-Apartheid movements like the Torch by the National Party.

Images of Sailor Malan at an anti-apartheid Torch Commando rally in Cape Town attended by over 10 000 returning South African World War 2 veterans.  For more on the Torch see Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter! and The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!)

Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government at this rally of “depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.

Covering Tracks

In the interests of consolidating themselves in power and in the interests of securing the “white vote” both English and Afrikaans voters (especially English-speaking white South Africans of British extraction) much of this legacy was a political “hot potato” for the National Party.  Nazism, Fascism and National Socialism was purged from Europe with the loss of millions of lives, and exposed for what it is – a crime against humanity.

Political careers – especially those of future National Party State Presidents and Prime Ministers would not be helped if their associations to Nazi Germany, Nazi political philosophy and even anti-British ideals where openly promoted. Especially when National Service was instituted and the National Party called on Jewish and English-speaking white South Africans of British heritage and even moderate or leftist Afrikaners to rally behind their cause to ‘fight communism’ and serve in the statutory armed forces as conscripts.

the-real-face-of-apartheid-vorster-and-hitler-1970sSo it was shielded – in formal secondary education it was at best trivialized if even taught at all and it was never really widely reported on by the state media apparatus when referring the political legacies of the likes of B.J. Vorster or P.W. Botha. Except ‘banned’ overseas anti-apartheid movements, they went to town on the link and broadly promoted it to anyone who would listen. This was of course gagged in South Africa under emergency regulations and banned organisation listings. The result is that little is left of it in the modern historical narrative on South Africa in the country itself.

At best, in South Africa, it was re-branded as a ‘fight against the British’ because of the atrocities committed by the British during the Boer War, a sort of retribution, cleverly phasing moral correctiveness to justify it.  What this narrative also aimed to do was unbundle all the underlying Nazi ideology, philosophy, ritual and politics which had been coupled so openly during the war to the Ossewabrandwag’s ideals of ‘Christian Nationalism’ by future National Party leaders.  Covering it up with ‘moral outrage’ instead.  Whilst retribution for the Boer War was a primary driver of the Ossewabrandwag, and there is good reason behind this objective, it was not the only driver, and ignoring the entire underpinning ideology of the group is only to look at half of the whole.

Many historians have asked if “Nazism” played a role in the creation of Apartheid as philosophy, and frankly the answer is yes it did, both directly and indirectly by the architects of Apartheid who so readily adopted Nazi ideals, rituals and philosophy during the war, in open and on the public record.  It is this for this reason that National Party did not want any open or constant linkages made to this, their darker past, because when in power the ideals behind Nazism were so abhorrent to the majority of white South Africans that it would have certainly lost them their authority.

In Conclusion

In the end it all disappeared into a politically generated one-sided nationalist narrative of South Africa’s history, and was lost or ‘re-presented’ as retribution for the Boer War to future generations. It even remains a very dark and relatively unknown topic even to this day, however, so strong is this legacy that it has continued to lurk in the Afrikaner far right for many years and resurfaced openly again in the ‘Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging’ – Afrikaner Resistance Movement (abbreviated to ‘AWB’) in the early 1990’s. When German Nazi swastika flags made a regular appearance next to the AWB flags – which were also styled after the swastika. In addition to German National Socialism finding itself back into the AWB ideology itself, it also wound its way into AWB identity – including insignia and uniform.

1978902_10152242649431480_1182899123_n

AWB Rally in Pretoria

This legacy is far-reaching, and it also remains an irony that the Ossewabrandwag (and later the AWB) embarked on acts of armed insurrection which by any modern definition would be considered a ‘terrorist’ act, and the same people involved in them would readily brand the ANC for ‘terrorism’ with no hindsight to their own time spent as a ‘terrorist’, fighting to destabilise the government of the day with bullets and bombs in very much the same way.

Ironic that the future ‘struggle’ of South Africa’s Black people (and many White people too) against the political philosophy of these men would emulate the same ‘struggle’ these men initiated against ‘British rule’ – and in both instances it carried with it armed insurrection, detention of ‘heroes’, imprisonment of a future President and the promotion of a political “ism”, albeit that ‘Communism’ and ‘African Socialism’ were diametrically opposite to ‘Fascism’, ‘Nazism’ and ‘Christian Nationalism’ – far left and far right of the political sphere respectively.

The net result, the importance and legacy that the Ossewabrandwag has left us with, is that ‘race politics’ continues to haunt us and ‘centre’ balanced moderate politics in South Africa has been completely elusive since 1948.

20157330_10155293323996480_5447290221746340136_o

Evolution of Symbology (L-R) Nazism, Ossewabrandwag, Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

References from South African History On-Line, Wikipedia and “The Rise of the South African Reich” 1964 written by Brian Bunting, “Echoes of David Irving – The Greyshirt Trial of 1934” by David M. Scher. “Not for ourselves” – a history of the SA Legion” by Arthur Blake. Lazerson, “Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid”. Neil Roos. “Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961″. David Harrison “The White Tribe of Africa, South Africa in Perspective” 1981.

Betty Quinn, the youngest recipient of the George Medal

Today we have a heartwarming story of a forgotten heroine of World War 2 which carries with it a South African twist.

1941: Betty Quinn, 17, the youngest recipient of the George Medal, at the Investiture Ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London. She saved seven people from a bombed air raid shelter while serving as an ARP Warden in Coventry during WW2.

Betty Quinn, a St. John Ambulance cadet, was awarded the George Medal for her bravery on 14 November 1940 during the heaviest night of the Coventry Blitz.  She was giving first aid at an ARP post when a shower of incendiary bombs fell in the district: “Without waiting for assistance she ran outside. AA batteries were putting up a heavy barrage and shrapnel was falling all round. Bombs began to fall and a man was injured by one. Miss Quinn assisted him to a private shelter. A report came in of an Anderson shelter receiving a direct hit and although bombs were still falling, Miss Quinn ran there and commenced digging in the crater with a spade. She assisted to dig out seven persons who had been trapped and then attended to their injuries. She stayed until all had been removed by ambulance, although shells were bursting overhead most of the time. She then returned to the post and carried on with her duties.”

Betty Quinn was tracked down in 2005 for an invite to attend the unveiling of the Women of WW2 Memorial, next to the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Betty was living in Cape Town, South Africa where she had been living for 63 years, a direct result of what happened in 1940. Following her fame which spread throughout the Empire after her award, she received a marriage proposal from a South African, which was obviously too good to refuse.

gmIn 1940, during the height of The Blitz there was a strong desire to reward the many acts of civilian courage. The existing awards open to civilians were not judged suitable to meet the new situation, therefore it was decided that the George Medal would be instituted to recognise both civilian gallantry in the face of enemy action and brave deeds more generally.

 

 


Photo by Keystone/Getty Images, reference British and Commonwealth Forces Facebook page.

The Forces Sweetheart & The Lady in White, two iconic women of WW2

Dame Vera Lynn recently turned 100 years old and we look at two iconic women from the Second World War, one British and one South African. Both friends and both famed for singing to troops on quaysides. Here is Dame Vera Lynn (known to the troops as “The Forces Sweetheart”) on the left and Perla Siedle Gibson (Known to the troops as “The Lady In White”) on the right whilst Vera Lynn was on tour in South Africa in the 1950’s.

This photo was taken at the M.O.T.H. Headquarters in Durban (Warrior’s Gate), in the centre between these two iconic women is South African military veteran Harold William (Nobby) Clarke who was a Custodian of Warrior’s Gate.

Dame Vera Lynn, DBE (born Vera Margaret Welch on 20 March 1917), widely known as “The Forces’ Sweetheart”, she is an English singer, songwriter and actress whose musical recordings and performances were enormously popular during the Second World War. During the war she toured Egypt, India and Burma, giving outdoor concerts for the troops. The songs most associated with her are “We’ll Meet Again”, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “There’ll Always Be an England”.

She remained popular after the war, appearing on radio and television in the UK and the US and recording such hits as “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” and her UK Number one single “My Son, My Son”. Her last single, “I Love This Land”, was released to mark the end of the Falklands War. In 2009, at age 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK Albums Chart.

She has devoted much time and energy to charity work connected with ex-servicemen, disabled children, and breast cancer. She is held in great affection by veterans of the Second World War to this day and in 2000 was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.

On 20th March 2017, Dame Vera celebrated her 100th birthday.

Perla Siedle Gibson was a South African soprano and artist who became internationally celebrated during the Second World War as the Lady in White, when she sang troopships in and out of Durban harbour.

Gibson was born in Durban in 1888. In the early twentieth century she studied music and art in Europe and the US and gave recitals in London and New York. Her youngest brother was Jack Siedle, the South African Test cricketer.

During World War 2 Durban was an extremely busy way station for convoys of ships en route to the fronts in North Africa and the Far East. Gibson became famous among thousands of Allied troops when she serenaded them as their ships passed in and out.

She went on to sing to more than 5,000 ships and a total of about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen. Clad in white with a red hat, she would stand at a spot at the mouth of Durban Bay where ships entering and leaving the harbour pass quite close, and sing patriotic and sentimental songs through a megaphone from a torpedoed ship, which grateful British soldiers had given her.

She died in 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday. The year later a bronze plaque donated by men of the Royal Navy was erected to her memory on Durban’s North Pier on the spot where she used to sing. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a statue of Perla Gibson near the Ocean Terminal in Durban harbour.

The debt of gratitude owed by a collective world free of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy to both these women is massive – it cannot be accounted such is the value.


Researched and written by Peter Dickens. Travers Barret Photographer copyright and grateful thanks to Kevin Lamprecht for sharing his Grandfather’s photograph and memories.  Vera Lynn video clipped from Youtube.  ‘We’ll meet again’ sung by Vera Lynn.

Wartime beach defences and legendary hospitality

During the Second World War South Africa became a central destination for British, South African as well as other Commonwealth nurses, soldiers, sailors and airmen for a little ‘R&R” (Rest and Recuperation) – especially Durban and Cape Town. Seen here in this famous LIFE magazine image are servicemen on South Africa’s beaches enjoying some of the prettier sights and sun that South Africa has to offer.

In fact many veterans fondly remember South Africa’s hospitality during the war years as the country really opened their arms and welcomed them.

Note during wartime even both the strategic ports of Cape Town and Durban’s beaches were heavily guarded against invasion with barbed wire beach obstacles.

Image copyright – LIFE Magazine