Forgotten history – South Africa at its humanitarian best – the ‘Berlin Airlift’

Currently the 70th anniversary of The Berlin Airlift is in full swing, but did you know that as South Africans we can also hold our collective heads high, having played a key role in saving the civilians of war-torn Berlin from starvation and death after the Communist ‘Iron-Curtain’ descended?

For those unaware of what The Berlin Air Lift was, and why it was so important as the saviour of West Berlin’s civilians from certain starvation and death, and even how South Africa played a role of in averting this humanitarian crisis, here’s a quick overview.

Background to the ‘Berlin Air Lift’

After the Second World War ended in 1945, Germany was divided into control zones by the victorious Allied armies so as to prevent Germany from ever re-starting another world war, however, the very act of dividing Germany did start another world war, this time “The Cold War” – and this ideological and economic war to be fought between ‘Eastern’ Communism and ‘Western’ Capitalist Democracy.

The Cold War is misunderstood to many today, as they see it as an ideological one and not a deadly one, a ‘war’ as such was never declared – and by the time the millennium came around the new generation could not understand why such a big deal was made of it.

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However truth be told  – The Cold War was very deadly and was to be fought in proxy wars all over the planet, and it resulted in the greatest stand-off of mutually assured  nuclear annihilation ever seen – with zero dialogue or even a simple telephone line between the main belligerents – Russia (and it’s bloc Allies) one the one side and the United States of America (and its bloc Allies) on the other.  The epicentre of the ‘Cold War’ began with the act of the Berlin blockade in 1948 and subsequent Airlift, and the very first casualties of the Cold War in terms of sacrifice of members of statute forces – also began with the Berlin Airlift.

So what’s with the divide?

Simple put, at the conference on the 5th February 1945 towards the end of World War 2 between the ‘Big Three’ (The US, UK and Russia) at Yalta, Stalin made it clear to America and Britain that Russia was never to exposed to an attack from ‘the west’ again, they had endured the French when Napoleon invaded Russia and then endured the Germans when Hitler invaded Russia, with a massive bloodletting.  In fact Russian bloodletting and sacrifice in World War 2 exceeds the British & Commonwealth, the French and American bloodletting all combined.  Simply put, Stalin wanted a ‘buffer’ between Russia and Europe and everything East of Germany would become a satellite communist state to provide exactly that – with Moscow calling the shots.

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The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

With that the independent Parliaments, Kingdoms and Democracies of ‘liberated’ small states like Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Poland all but disappeared into a block of ‘puppet’ Communist satellite states.

In dividing up Germany to manage it post war, the ‘Western’ coalition of British, French and American Zones effectively made up what was to become ‘West Germany’ and the ‘Eastern’ Russian coalition zone (the Soviet Union) made up what was to eventually become ‘East Germany’.  The capital of Germany – Berlin, was strategically important to Germany itself and although it was located well inside the ‘Soviet’ bloc it also needed to be divided into ‘West’ and ‘East’ in a similar way.

So Berlin itself had a Western sector which was divided into control zones by the Western allies – The United Kingdom, France and the United States of America, and an Eastern sector which was controlled by the Russian coalition the USSR – The Soviet Union.  As Berlin was 100 miles into ‘Communist’ territory it was fed by a secured road and rail corridor which stretched from West Germany well into East Germany.

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Berlin’s zones as defined after the end of WW2

Berlin, with its ‘western sectors’ was a ‘blot’ in the middle of Stalin’s ‘buffer’, it undermined his complete communist barrier splitting Europe in half (a barrier Churchill tagged very aptly as ‘The Iron Curtain’). Berlin was an island of Capitalism in the middle of a sea of Communism, a beacon of Western democracy contrasting to the ideals of socialist conformity – it simply had to go.

The ‘Trigger’

In June 1948, Britain, France and America united their zones into a new country, West Germany. On 23 June 1948, they introduced a new currency – the Deutschmark, which they said would help trade and aid West Germany’s war debt repayments by pulling it out of recession and the ‘cigarette economy’ it was in.

The Soviets, however, hoping to continue the German recession, refused to accept the new currency, in favor of the over-circulated Soviet Reichsmark. By doing so, the Soviets believed they could foster a communist uprising in postwar Germany through civil unrest. By March 1948 it was evident that no agreements could be reached on a unified currency or quadripartite control of Germany. Both sides waited for the other to make a move.

 

The Soviets, trying to push the west out of Berlin, countered this move by requiring that all Western convoys bound for Berlin travelling through Soviet Germany be searched. The “Trizone” government (Britain, France and the USA), recognising the threat, refused the right of the Soviets to search their cargo. The Soviets then cut all surface traffic to West Berlin on June 27. American ambassador to Britain, John Winnant, stated the accepted Western view when he said that he believed “that the right to be in Berlin carried with it the right of access.” The Soviets, however, did not agree. Shipments by rail and the autobahn came to a halt. A desperate Berlin, faced with starvation and in need of vital supplies, looked to the West for help.

The Soviet Union’s unprecedented move to prevent the introduction of the new currency and cut off East Germany from West Germany by way of a blockade – was the ‘trigger’ and less so the ’cause’, the much-anticipated Soviet Communist ‘Iron Curtain’ finally fell dividing the whole Europe.

As Berlin sat in East Germany, the blockade isolated the western half of the city from supply of vital coal and fuel (for heating and transport) and food. The Western Allies saw this blockade as an aggressive and ‘illegal’ Soviet move to absorb West Berlin into the Soviet Union, and the precursor to starting a 3rd World War with the Western Allies (the Cold War had begun in effect).

The Plan 

The restrictions prevented the supply of food and materials by road from the British, American and French occupation zones in West Germany to their zones in West Berlin. So the Western Allies overcame the problem by creating an air bridge instead and came up with a very ambitious plan to ferry in supplies using transport aircraft – the air-space over East Germany to Berlin was not contested, and the Allies gambled that the Soviet Union would not make the error of initiating an act of war against the West by shooting one down.

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British and American air force officers consult an operations plan giving routes and heights of all aircraft in and out of the Berlin area during the Airlift.

An airlift on this scale had never been attempted before (and has never been achieved again).  It required military transport aircraft to fly into Berlin round the clock for weeks on end, until the Soviet resolve was broken.  It was also critical, the city of Berlin had been destroyed during the Second World War, many of its citizens living hand to mouth.

Logistics 

Nothing short of a logistics miracle to heat and feed West Berlin by air and during the around-the-clock airlift (in the end some 277,000 flights were made), many at 3 minute intervals, flying in an average of 5,000 tons of food and fuel each day.

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Air corridor map to Berlin from the Western Allied controlled part of Germany to the Berlin in the Soviet controlled part of Germany.

The American military government, based on a minimum daily ration of 1,990 kilocalories (July 1948), a total of daily supplies needed at 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese. In all, 1,534 tons were required each day to sustain the over two million people of Berlin. Additionally, for heat and power, 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and petrol were also required daily.

To complete the task the Western Allied Command turned to the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) for the ‘British’ contribution, the French Air Force (FAR) for the ‘French’ contribution and the United States Air Force (USAF) for the American contribution.

This would be the greatest humanitarian mission ever implemented, and South African pilots, navigators and other air-crew were right at the centre of it.

The Airlift

Operations began on 24 June 1948. The order to begin supplying West Berlin by air was approved by U.S. General Lucius Clay on June 27 with USAF AC-47s lifting off for Berlin hauling 80 tons of cargo, including milk, flour, and medicine. When the blockade first started, the city of Berlin had around 36 days worth of food.

The first British aircraft flew on 28 June 1948. At that time, the airlift was expected to last three weeks.  Nothing would be further from the  truth, the Airlift was to progress through a very cold winter to come.

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Short Sunderland GR Mark 5 of No 201 Squadron, Royal Air Force, moored on Lake Havel in Berlin, Germany. Lake Havel was used by Coastal Command Sunderlands from July until mid-December 1948, when the threat of winter ice suspended further use.

President Truman, wishing to avoid war or a humiliating retreat, continually supported the air campaign. Surviving the normally harsh German winter, the airlift carried over two million tons of supplies in 277,000 flights, and would continue well into the new year, only to finally officially end in September 1949.

To keep the aircraft coming in at the rate of supply needed, fast turnaround was expected on the ground in Berlin.  Pilots and crews generally did not leave their aircraft and were provided with snacks and meals. The German civilian population got into ensuring the airlift was a success and to make up for shortages in manpower. Crews unloading and making airfield repairs at the Berlin airports were made up of almost entirely by local civilians, who were given additional rations in return for their assistance.

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USAF Dakota transport with a cargo of flour during the Berlin Airlift

As the crews experience increased, the times for unloading continued to fall, with a record set for the unloading of an entire 10-ton shipment of coal from a C-54 in ten minutes, later beaten when a twelve-man crew unloaded the same quantity in five minutes and 45 seconds.

The Candy Bombers

At the very beginning of the air-lift Gail Halvorsen, and American pilot arrived at Tempelhof on 17 July 1948 on one of the C-54s and walked over to a crowd of children who had gathered at the end of the runway to watch the aircraft and handed out his only two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum to the children.

The children quickly divided up the pieces as best they could, even passing around the wrapper for others to smell. He was so impressed by their gratitude and that they didn’t fight over them, that he promised the next time he returned he would drop off more. Before he left them, a child asked him how they would know it was him flying over. He replied, “I’ll wiggle my wings.”

The next day on his approach to Berlin, he rocked the aircraft and dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below. Every day after that, the number of children increased and he made several more drops. Soon, there was a stack of mail in Base Ops addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings”, “The Chocolate Uncle” and “The Chocolate Flier”.

The Allied Command was so impressed by this gesture of goodwill and its ‘public relations’ value that the mission was expanded into “Operation Little Vittles”.  Up to this point the children of Berlin only knew that American and British aircraft brought bombs, fire, death and destruction.  Now, in a pure expression of humanity the aircraft would bring happiness to children in what was to them a break and traumatized time, the Western Allies would now drop candy instead of bombs.

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Children of Berlin wave to a ‘Candy Bomber’ to get the attention of the air crew.

The other air-lift pilots joined in, and when news reached the United States, children all over the country sent in their own candy to help out. Soon, major candy manufacturers joined in. In the end, over twenty-three tons of candy were dropped on Berlin the “operation” became a major propaganda success. German children christened the candy-dropping aircraft “raisin bombers”.

On December 20, 1948 “Operation Santa Claus” was also flown from Fassberg, with gifts for 10,000 children.

Sacrifice 

The airlift was not without its hazards, with that many aircraft on that type of complex operation flying in all sorts of conditions – instrument and visual, and weather, so there we bound to be accidents.

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There were 101 fatalities recorded during the Airlift. The number includes 40 British and Commonwealth air-crew and 31 American air-crew. The majority died as a result of accidents resulting from hazardous weather conditions or mechanical failures. The remainder is composed of civilians who perished on the ground while providing support for the operation or who lost their lives when aircraft accidents destroyed their homes. As aircraft losses go 17 American and 8 British aircraft crashed during the Berlin Airlift.

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In honor of the pilots and aircrews who were lost the Berlin Airlift Monument was created from a fund established by the former Federal Republic of Germany and private donations. It was dedicated in 1951. All together there are three matching monuments: at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, at Wietzenbruch near the former British airbase Celle, and at the Luftbruckenplatz (Airbridge Place) Berlin-Tempelhof airfield. The base of the monument at Tempelhof reads, “They gave their lives for the freedom of Berlin in service for the Berlin Airlift 1984/1949.” The location at Tempelhof is presently being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

South African service personnel in the airlift

The full list of South African pilots and aircrew is hard to come by as the commitment of South Africans in the Berlin Airlift is not generally part of the South African national consciousness anymore – whereas in countries like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada it is.

On the 27th September 1948, Union government of South Africa committed 50 South African Air Force (SAAF) crew to the Berlin Airlift, in all the SAAF would provide two contingents of air-crew to the air-lift, most seconded to RAF Transport Command and even one SAAF registered C-47A Dakota transport aircraft (No. 6841) made its way to Berlin to be put into service.

South Africans known to us at the moment who took part in the Berlin Airlift include Steve Stevens, who participated in WW2 as a SAAF Beaufighter pilot, Albie Gotze who participated in WW2 as a seconded SAAF pilot in RAF Typhoons and Spitfires.  Joe Hurst, John Clifford Bolitho, Duncan Ralston, Jenks Jenkins, Pat Clulow, Tom Condon, Johnnie Eloff, Mickey Lamb, “Shadow” Atkinson, Jannie Blaauw, Piet Gotze, Wilhelm Steytler, Vic de Villiers, Mike Pretorius, Nic Nicholas, Jack Davis,  Dormie Barlow, Tienie van der Kaay ‘Porky’ Rich, Ian Bergh (flying Sunderlands in the RAF) are all South African and SAAF pilots and air-crew recorded as taking part.

In addition SAAF pilot Joe Joubert also took part and was even commemorated for his actions during the Berlin Airlift.  Joe Joubert flew as a navigator in the Berlin Airlift and on the 9th July 1949 he and the radio operator were ordered to jettison 63 sacks of coal as the aircraft could not gain height in a severe thunderstorm. This was achieved in a remarkable six and a half minutes and he received a commendation for this remarkable act. This act was certainly helped by the fact that in his spare time Joe practiced weight lifting.

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Joe Joubert (right) – a SAAF pilot in the Berlin Airlift to earn a special commendation

Flt Officer Kenneth Reeves is South Africa’s only casualty during the Berlin Airlift, and he symbolises the greatest sacrifice we as a nation can give.   Kenneth was a navigator on board a RAF CD-3 (Dakota) which crashed in the Soviet Zone near Lübeck, killing all the crew.

Light at the end of the tunnel

By the spring of 1949, the airlift was clearly succeeding, and by April it was delivering more cargo than had previously been transported into the city by rail. On 12 May 1949, the Soviet Union finally realised the futility of the road and rail blockade of West Berlin and lifted it, however tensions remained.

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Air crew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) enjoy an off-duty drink in the officers’ bar at RAF Lubeck. IWM Copyright.

The airlift however continued until 30th September 1949, at a total cost of $224 million and after delivery of 2,323,738 tons of food, fuel, machinery, and other supplies. The end to the blockade was brought about because of countermeasures imposed by the Allies on the Soviet blockade by way of the airlift and because of a subsequent Western embargo placed on all strategic exports from the Eastern bloc. As a result of the blockade and airlift, Berlin became a symbol of the Allies’ willingness to oppose further Soviet expansion in Europe.

In conclusion

There can be little doubt that the Airlift was a success on many levels. It saved millions of lives and preserved the freedom of the city of Berlin. Veterans’ groups world over still celebrate the victory by gathering around the bases of the monuments and laying wreathes and flowers in memorial for those who paid the ultimate cost.  This act of remembrance made even more important on the 70th Anniversary.

However little recognition is given to the Berlin Airlift in South Africa, These are truly “unsung” heroes of South Africa we can be very proud of and not to be forgotten. The South Africans who took part in the Berlin Airlift are icons in Germany, and hardly known in South Africa, such is the strange politics we as South Africans tend to weave.

The Berlin Airlift marks South Africa’s first sacrifice in the ‘Cold War’ – further sacrifice was to come in the other future ‘Cold War’ proxy wars  – fought by South African statute forces against Soviet Allies in Korea, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique.

To many of the South African air-crew and SAAF members who took part in this momentous period in world history, the saving of a city from near starvation, the Capital City of a former enemy now vanquished by the war, with this act of sheer human philanthropy and benevolence was to really end South Africa’s “war” on a very humane high.

We leave the Cold War where it started and in one fitting epitaph the last British pilot to leave Berlin had chalked on the side of his aircraft the words, “Positively the last flight…Psalm 21, Verse 11” That psalm reads:

If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.”

Related links and work

Jan Smuts Barracks Berlin Smuts Barracks; Berlin


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

Source The South African Air Force Museum.  The Imperial War Museum.  Image copyrights (see watermark) – Imperial War Museum.

Sir ‘Dingbat’ the Knight

Here’s an extraordinary tale of someone who started out as a Johannesburg ‘boytjie’ and attained the heady heights of not only a very senior Commander of forces during World War 2 and the Cold War but also became a Knight of the realm.

500px-Royal_Air_Force_Fighter_Command,_1939-1945._CH7956In South Africa many of our military heroes are lost to time or politics, especially those who found their way into the British Armed Forces during World War 2.  In fact to our Grandparent’s or even parent’s generation taking part in the war there were a number of significant and highly decorated men from South Africa who eventually went to very senior positions of command of His Majesty’s Armed Forces (British) during WW2, let alone South African forces – and this is one of them – Air Chief Marshal Sir H.W.L. “Dingbat” Saunders GCB, KBE, MC, DFC & Bar, MM

Now, a ‘Air Chief Marshal’ and a ‘Knight’ of the British Realm – a ‘Marshal’ and a ‘Sir’, that’s something significant for some kid from Johannesburg with the nickname of ‘Dingbat’, not withstanding the gallantry decorations of a Military Cross, two Distinguished Flying Cross’ and a Military Medal.  So who the heck is ‘Dingbat’ and how did he get there?

A true blue South African

Hugh “Dingbat” Saunders was born in Johannesburg South Africa on the 24th August 1894 – the son of Fred Saunders, in fact he came from Germiston (now not too many people in Germiston today know that their humble city has spawned a Knight), Dingbat was educated at the Marist Brothers college in Johannesburg.  How he got the nickname ‘Dingbat’ is lost to time, by English definition a ‘Dingbat’ is someone who is a little ‘odd’ a little out of the ordinary.  As an odd or off-set kind of person Dingbat was destined to live up to the nickname certainly for a kid from Germiston.

Like many South Africans graduating he was just in time to answer the call when World War 1 broke out, joining up in August 1914.

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7Initially he joined the South African Army starting off as a simple private, serving with the Witwatersrand rifles and then found his way to the South African Horse, he took part in ground action even winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery whilst a soldier in the Union of South Africa’s Armed Forces.

However his love and passion was the whole new world of flying, as South Africa did not have an Air Force in World War 1 (it was very early days for idea of flying let alone using it for combat), Dingbat had no choice but to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, (as did a number of other South Africans choosing this new field of combat).  The Royal Flying Corps was the ‘Army’s’ air-force and it was the beginning of what was to become The Royal Air Force towards the end of World War 1.

Starting at the bottom rung commissioned officer rank of an Officer Cadet, Dingbat Saunders was promoted to temporary 2nd Lieutenant (on probation) on 2 August 1917 and posted to 84 Squadron in November 1917.  Here’s his military career started to really ‘take flight’.  He was posted to fly SE5a’s with No 84 Squadron during the German offensive of March 1918 when their aircraft were fitted with bombs as well as machine guns.  They operated throughout the day in pairs harrying the Germans at any and every opportunity – incidentally 84 Squadron was also the home of a South African Victoria Cross recipient – and South Africa’s most highest decorated person, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC.

By the time he left 84 Squadron in August 1918 he had been credited with 15 victories and was the senior flight commander on the squadron.

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RAF SE5a of 84 Squadron

During his time he picked up the Military Cross in 1918, a gallantry decoration and his citation cementing his reputation as an ‘Ace’ says just about everything:

T./2nd Lt. Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M.M., Gen. List, attd. R.A.F.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During recent operations he destroyed five enemy machines and shot down four out of control. He showed great courage and skill in engaging enemy aircraft, and did splendid service.

Now promoted to Captain, he was at it again towards the end of World War 1 displaying an unbelievable degree of boldness and bravery, picking up the Distinguished Flying Cross along the way, again his citation for his DFC says everything:

Lieut. (T./Capt.) Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M,C., M.M.

An officer of exceptional courage, who, since he was awarded the M.C., has destroyed five enemy aircraft and shot down two balloons in flames. While on patrol he observed a formation of seven hostile scouts below him. Diving to attack he engaged the leader and firing shoot bursts at close range shot him down nose foremost; the remainder of the formation scattered in all directions.

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Group photograph of No. 84 Squadron RAF, Germany. British Army of the Rhine

Inter-War period

During the period between World War 1 and World War 2, Hugh Saunders decided to remain with the fledgling Royal Air Force and make a career of it.  He had attained a formidable reputation as a combat aviator, so he begun more formal training at the RAF Staff College in 1928 attaining his first command of RAF 45 Squadron in 1932.  After more staff officer training at the Imperial Defence College in 1938, Dingbat found his way to New Zealand as the Chief of Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and was holding this post at the on-set of World War 2.

World War 2

When the Second World War had moved into full swing,  Hugh Saunders made his way back to the United Kingdom and into the thick of commanding RAF operations in Europe.  In February 1942 he joined Fighter Command HQ as a AOA (Air Officer Administration), but was soon in a leading post during the war in Europe as the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, Fighter Command.

No small task for Dingbat, No. 11 Group Fighter Command had been the epicentre of fighter operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and was responsible for the defence of London and the English South East, and operated from famous ‘Battle of Britain Bunker’.

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Senor Montero de Bustamante, Uruguayan Charge d’Affaires, speaking at the ceremony to name a Spitfire (“Uruguay XVI”) sponsored by the people of Uruguay. Air Vice Marshal H W L Saunders, Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group of Fighter Command, is on the extreme left.

By the time Dingbat Saunders joined No. 11 Group Fighter Command as AOC on the 28th November 1942 the Battle of Britain was over, but Britain was no means out of the woods.  Prior to 1942, Air Vice Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, had overseen a thorough overhaul of the Operations Room within the Battle of Britain Bunker.

The old ‘Battle of Britain’ plotting system of wooden markers and wooden croupier-style pushing sticks were replaced with metal plotting markers and magnetic sticks, and the old tote system of light-indicators was replaced with a slat-board system with hanging information.

No.11 Group was by now largely occupied with air operations over occupied Europe (although defensive operations over British airspace continued also). It conducted fighter sweeps over enemy territory and these would continue throughout the war along with bomber escort missions. In August 1942 fighter operations during the Dieppe Raid were controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.  Dingbat Saunders was still holding the position of Air Officer Commanding No.11 Group Fighter Command in June 1944, and oversaw RAF fighter operations during Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings), which were also controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.

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Air Vice Marshal Hugh Saunders, the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group RAF, decorating Squadron Leader Wacław Król, the CO of No. 302 Polish Fighter Squadron, with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

By late 1944 Hugh Saunders had advanced to the position of  Director-General of Personnel in the Air Ministry, but with the war in Europe nearing an end a new appointment back in the thick of things in Burma fighting the Japanese awaited him.  On the 1 August 1945 he attained the rank of Air Marshal Commanding the Royal Air Force in Burma.

Burma was relatively straightforward to deal with, much of the colony had been re-conquered several months before the end of the war in the big British offensive against the Japanese in the summer of 1945. That gave ACSEA crucial breathing space to start getting the colony back on its feet before the massive increase in occupation duties postwar occurred.

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Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders (right), stands with Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia, shortly after arriving in Rangoon to take up his appointment as Air Marshal Commanding RAF Burma.

RAF Burma was well established under Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders. At the end of the war, it had 28 squadrons under its control. This quickly reduced as the demobilisation of all fighting forces in Asia really kicked in. The transport squadrons saw the largest amount of work, evacuating POWs and internees and supplying garrisons and the civilian population. Second to the transport squadrons in workload were the photo reconnaissance aircraft. The opportunity was taken to complete the process of surveying South East Asia from the air, and using the survey to bring maps up to date.

Post War

After the war and his South East Asia appointment, Hugh Saunders was sent back to the United Kingdom when in January 1947 he became the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for Bomber Command.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders – Signed Operations map used during August 1994 RAF European Operations.

He went on to become Inspector-General of the Royal Air Force (1949-1950), being promoted Air Chief Marshal in 1950. In February 1951, Saunders was again in the thick of it during the Cold War, and here he played a significant role in NATO, he assumed the mantle of Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces in Western Europe (all of them, not just the RAF).  By April 1951 he was the Air Deputy to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR), none other than the famous Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders bid farewell to his astounding military career on the 27th July 1953, having attained what is arguably one of the highest ranking positions in world military aviation, and he is certainly the only South African to reach such a high level of aviation command.

Post Retirement

Following a series of fatal accidents in the newly established Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF), Hugh Saunders was invited to serve as a special advisor to the Minister of Defence of Denmark in 1954, in order to reorganise and, it was envisioned, bring the number of accidents in RDAF down. Saunders indeed reorganised the RDAF and, realising that most of the equipment/planes were of a tactical nature, established Tactical Air Command Denmark as the supreme HQ of RDAF. In addition, a number of specialist commands were established, training improved and gradually the accident rate fell. He served in Denmark until 1956 and received the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog for his service

Knighthoods 

The Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog aside  – in the ‘Order of Bath’, our Johannesburg lad racked up a Knight Grand Cross (GCB) on 1 June 1953 (having already attained his Knight Commander KCB on 2 Jan 1950, and Companion to the order CB obtained in June 1943).

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Order of the Bath, G.C.B. (Military) Knight Grand Cross set of insignia

Also knighthoods go, under the Order of the British Empire ‘Dingbat’ was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) on 14 June 1945 (having already obtained his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire officer CBE in July 1941).

In addition he also received Commander’s Cross with Star from Poland, a Commander of the Legion of Merit from the United States and an Officer of the Legion of Honour in France.

In Conclusion

Not bad for a Boytjie called ‘Dingbat’ from with a humble beginning in Johannesburg South Africa, you have to admit to that.  Dingbat died in the United Kingdom after a very long life aged 92.

Yet, in South Africa today he is an enigma, not known and unappreciated, the victim of political one-upmanship to bury all our World War 1 and World War 2 heroes in a Nationalistic fervour to rid our military identity and history of its British heritage starting in 1948 by Afrikaner Nationalists and continuing from 1994 by African Nationalists – even at the expense of South Africans who have risen to some of the most commanding positions in military history and who have played such pivot roles in the outcome of not only World War 1, but World War 2 and even in the case of ‘Dingbat’ here – in moulding the modern Western European defence landscape.

Related Links and work

Jan Smuts and the RAF:  The Royal Air Force’s 100th Birthday and its founder – Jan Smuts

South African WW1 Aces; Kimberley’s local baker was also a WW1 Flying Ace

South African’s in RAF 74 Squadron; Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!

Other South Africans with 84 Squadron during WW1 ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference ‘Air of Authority’ – an on-line history of the Royal Air Force organisation.  Imperial War Museum.

 

Churchill’s Desk

Walk into the average teenager’s room and it would be adorned with posters of people they are fans of.  People, usually music stars, that they look up and admire, and more importantly people to which they role model.  These people are powerful icons which shape them psychologically.

ChurchillTo an adult, after a more experienced life, the icons who have moulded them – their role models, the people they admire most usually end up in picture frames or as small statues on mantels, desks and tables, very often family but very often also great thinkers, leaders who have step-changed their world and great sportsmen and women (even the odd music star from their teens might even make an appearance).

It’s no different with Winston Churchill, his desk at Chartwell is the most telling of who shaped him as a person, who he admired the most, who he loved and who he looked to for inspiration when writing his accounts of history, his epoch changing speeches and his great works on shaping the future of Great Britain.

Churchill suffered from great bouts of depression, which he called his ‘black dog’ and it is  in these people represented on his desk that he would also find light and drive, these are very important individuals to him.

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In and amongst his family portraits on his desk, he positioned three non-family members in the middle of his desk – his ‘heroes’ looking strait back at him for inspiration – Napoleon, Nelson and, believe it or not, Jan Smuts.

One Englishman, one Frenchman and one Afrikaner … now that’s a strange combination for someone who epitomised everything British and her Imperial Empire.  Horatio Nelson you can understand, but two great former enemies of Britain, that’s odd.

So let’s understand why Churchill was such a big fan of Nelson, Napoleon and Smuts and examine why these specific people shaped him as a leader, a man who was to be voted by the British in 2002  as the greatest Briton in their history ahead of a nomination of 100 others in a BBC survey.  A man, whether some like it or not, who is one of the most influential men to have shaped our 21st Century’s social, political and economic landscapes.

Horatio Nelson

horatio-nelson-george-baxterPerhaps owing to Churchill’s role as First Lord of the Admiralty (a position which he held twice) Churchill developed a serious love of Nelson. A bust of Nelson sat on his desk at Chartwell and Churchill had a grey cat which accompanied him on trips to Chequers during the war which he named for the great Napoleonic Wars admiral.

One of Churchill’s favourite movies was Lady Hamilton, a film about Nelson’s mistress. Churchill also wrote about Nelson in History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Lets face it he was a fan.

But not just Churchill, in the BBC vote for the greatest Briton, Horacio Nelson also made the short-list.  The British we such fans of Nelson they went further than a small busts of him, they erected a column (which extends the full length of the HMS Victory’s mast) in the middle of their most famous square in the centre of London and put him on the top.  Nelson still towers over London on his ‘column’ to this day.

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What Nelson did to get all this admiration is he ‘saved Britain’ whilst at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Navy by destroying the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and this is really why Churchill found inspiration in him.  Churchill was to emulate his hero exactly when he too ‘saved Britain’ at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Air Force by destroying the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

That is why Nelson sits on Churchill’s desk.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Churchill had a fascination and an immense respect for Napoleon. His bust also sat on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, but was slightly larger and more prominently placed than Nelson’s – in fact it sits dead centre and dominates his desk.

Churchill enjoyed reflecting on Napoleon’s military genius, perhaps wanting to emulate the French emperor. After all, like Churchill after the Dardanelles, Napoleon made a significant comeback. Churchill even hoped to write a biography of Napoleon but never found the time.

More than that, he hated it when people would compare Hitler to Napoleon. “It seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior,” he said, “to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher”.

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But most of all, during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) it was Napoleon’s quote that came to his mind when he surrendered to Boer forces once he found him isolated from an armoured train which the Boer’s attacked.  Of the incident when a Boer horseman pointed a rifle at his head and waved it to signal he should come out, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer’s signal to surrender or die and walked out. Napoleon had literally saved his life.

However, Churchill’s admiration of Napoleon is a lot deeper, what Churchill saw in Napoleon was a reformer. Napoleons influence on the modern world brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories that he conquered and controlled. His Napoleonic Code has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. British historian Andrew Roberts summed up Napoleon very well;

“The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire”

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With France capitulating to Nazi Germany early in World War 2, Europe’s great bastion of liberty forged by Napoleon was no longer in contention, and Churchill saw Britain as the last hope to carry this flame and become the next great reformer of Europe, and it has manifested itself in the creation of the European Union, the roots of its creation and thinking can be traced to none other than Churchill when after the 2nd World War he called for the creation of a ‘United States of Europe’.

That is why Napoleon sits on Churchill’s desk.

Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts’ portrait sits to the left of Napoleon’s bust on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, sitting alongside what is arguably the two greatest military strategists known – Nelson and Napoleon. Here Churchill viewed Smuts as an equal to two of the biggest hitters in European history. But why this lessor known Afrikaner General, why Smuts?

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Some would say it was Churchill’s close personal relationship with Smuts as his advisor during World War 2, that he was simply Churchill’s ‘friend’ with loads in common.  But that too would be incorrect, Smuts was the extreme opposite of Churchill, Smuts was a near teetotaler whereas Churchill was seldom sober, Smuts was an early to bed early riser, Churchill was a night-owl, Smuts maintained a stringent diet whereas Churchill was a glutton, Smuts enjoyed exercise and long walking and climbing treks and Churchill hated the very idea of it.

So, nothing in common as friends go then.

Less informed people in South Africa would venture it’s because Smuts turned ‘traitor’ on his people and turned ‘British’.  But that’s both grossly ignorant and entirely wrong as the rather inconvenient truth to these detractors is that Winston Churchill admired Jan Smuts precisely because he was a ‘Boer’.

Churchill emulated and admired Smuts, because Smuts had been his great adversary during the South African War (1899-1902).  He was a fan of Smuts’ strategic and tactical military capability and leadership in the field.  Churchill, like many of his peers and the general population in England, admired Smuts preciously because he epitomised the legacy of a great Boer fighter.

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There is credit in the arguments which expose certain officers and South African based British politicians for ‘Boer hatred’ during The South African War (1899 to 1902), it’s true in some cases and there is no denying that – but it is not generally true of the whole, in fact it’s entirely the opposite.  Across the English-speaking world, in Britain and America particularly the Boer fighter would take an on almost legendary and mythical status.

Consider this famous influential Briton’s admiration of the Boer nation.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said of the Boers after the South African war;

“Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots, who gave up their name and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes . The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon the face of the earth. Take these formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances in which no weakling could survive; place them so that they acquire skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman and the rider. Then, finally, put a fine temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual and you have the modern White Boer.”

IMG_104Smuts found thousands admirers for his speeches, in the general public, political circles and even in the British Parliament who received him with a resounding ovation, all of them within living knowledge of the South African War and the extremely hard time tenacious Boers, including Smuts, had given the British during the war.

The value of the ‘little guy’ standing up to the giant and giving it a bloody nose resounds very well in the English-speaking world.  So too the very British value of ‘pluckiness’ which the British saw in a tiny Republic taking on a Superpower, you just had to admire it.  Again, the Boer cause strikes the British value of ‘fortitude’, the ‘stiff upper lip’ required for supreme perseverance against intense adversary – and the Boer fighter amplified this value in buckets.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) was the single biggest event to ‘shape’ the young Churchill as a character, it forged him into who he became and his exploits in South Africa directly contributed to his success as leader.  He was time and again to encounter the Boer fighting spirit and strategic and tactical capability, the Boers made a POW of him, shot his horse out from under him and so narrowly killed him on so many occasions that Churchill would describe the sonic wakes of Boer bullets so close to blowing his head off they ‘kissed his cheeks’, his survival of Boer military assaults and marksmanship he puts down to his own sheer luck and nothing else.

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General Jan Smuts in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

What’s not to admire about these ‘pesky’ Boers made up of small groups of simple farming folk in their thousands using skilful military manoeuvrability and marksmanship to keep an entire professional army expeditionary force in their hundreds of thousands at bay with their heads down.

But not in his home country, Smuts would not find hordes of adoring fans, instead the nationalists spin-doctored this fame and admiration to further reinforce their argument that Smuts had turned ‘British’ and split him from his voter base and people. Not that this mattered a jot for Churchill in his worship of Smuts and the Boers, to him the ‘National Party’ was nothing more than a relatively small bunch of misled Nazi sympathising politicians, their brand of politics in countenance to just about every fibre in this body and they had nothing at all to do with the values he so admired in the Boers and Afrikaners in general.

It’s precisely because Churchill considered Smuts an ‘enemy’ and not a ‘friend’, that he was ‘Boer’ and not a ‘Brit’ that he found so much admiration in Smuts, that he thought himself an equal military strategist to wrestle his ideas with his old foe, to grapple with this formidable ‘Boer’ General for strategic perspective and in so not make the kind of mistake he made with the Dardanelles operation and the resultant, rather disastrous, Gallipoli campaign in World War 1.  Smuts tempered Churchill throughout World War 2 advising against his intrinsic disposition for impulsiveness with sheer reason.  Smuts ‘balanced’ Churchill perfectly.

It was the sheer fortitude of the Boer fighter that Churchill admired so much, the little guy giving the big guy the old two-fingered ‘Agincourt’ up-yours ‘mate’ salute the English archers gave the superior French forces in 1514 in defiance of them, a salute which Churchill (and even Smuts) would later turn around in a double-entendre of the gesture to indicate ‘Victory’ without losing its actual meaning.

Simply put – he admired all the ‘Boer’ traits of fortitude, versatility and mental toughness in Smuts, and it manifests itself in Churchill in just about every speech he made and work he did.

Richard Steyn in ‘Unafraid of Greatness’ sums this up very well;

“Yet the great paradox of (Smuts’) life was that – as Leif Egeland pointed out – it is precisely because Smuts was a Afrikaner and a Boer soldier that he built up such a formidable reputation world-wide.  On his many visits abroad and in his personal life, he kept the image of the Boer general, ‘one of the most romantic and bravest figures in history’. Whilst many of his countrymen described him for being an Englishman at heart, in Britain and around the world ‘General Smuts’ was respected and revered for being a true and patriotic Afrikaner – the finest example of his tribe”.

That’s why Smuts sits on Churchill’s desk.

Related work and Links

Churchill and The South African War; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

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

Smuts’ speech to the Houses of Parliament; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

References include ‘The National Trust Collections’ Chartwell, Jan Smuts reconsidered by Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  ‘Who were Churchill’s heroes’ by Warren Dockter, historian 2015.  Horatio Nelson portait by George Baxter,  Image of Smuts and Churchill – Imperial War Museum

 

Whose land is it anyway?

It’s a thorny issue in South Africa, the taking of farm land without compensation.  However the Anglo-Boer Wars (both of them) and even the Voortrekker Zulu War carry with them some interesting history and it asks the question ‘whose land is it anyway’ One significant and conveniently overlooked answer lies in the grounding history and cause of the South African War 1899-1902 (also known as the 2nd Anglo-Boer War).

This answer makes the case for the giving of annexed land by the Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics (The Boers) back to the black indigenous peoples of South Africa who existed in those two republics prior to The South African War, and it ALSO makes a case which reinforces the ‘white’ Boer ownership of vast tracks of land in the two old Boer Republics annexed by the British during The South African War.

To many South Africans the chief cause of the Second Anglo-Boer War is completely misunderstood, it is shrouded by a National Party narrative and bias caused by the fierce sense of Afrikaner Nationalism created by this party’s ideology.   Dismiss for a minute the whole Nationalist idea that all the land was ’empty’ or bartered and traded for fairly during the Great Trek. Also, dismiss for a minute also the whole idea that the 2nd Anglo-Anglo Boer war was all only about ‘gold’ and ‘diamonds’ and British greed for it. Finally, dismiss the idea that the Boer concentration camps of The South African War were systematic ‘extermination’ camps designed to rid the British world of the Boer nation in its entirety (Nazi style).  All of these Nationalist fuelled ideas are either falsehoods or at best only half-truths.  When putting these into correct context and in the ‘inconvenient’ truth that the case for ‘who owns the land’ is found.

Let’s start with the real underpinning reason for the 2nd Anglo-Boer war (The South African War), which is the 1st Anglo-Boer War (The Transvaal War).  Like World War 2 is World War 1, Part 2, so too a key underpinning cause of  the 2nd Anglo-Boer War was the 1st Anglo-Boer War.   In effect ‘Boer War’ 2 is ‘Boer War 1’; Part 2.

1st Anglo-Boer War

The 1st Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War) is an enigma to most South Africans, barely understood even today, the events and outrages of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War completely cloud it out, and it’s an inconvenient war to look at as it throws up these thorny truths which don’t suit the political narrative:

  • The Transvaal Republic was at one stage a British Colony BEFORE the 2nd Anglo- Boer War
  • The Transvaal Republic ‘raad’ handed their Republic, with all its wealth and their state coffers (tax), their flag and their independence to the British in April 1877 – willingly and WITHOUT one single protest or shot fired.
  • ‘Native Land’ and ‘Protection’ were also a central reason why the Transvaal Boer Republic INVITED the British to colonise their Republic.

In 1876 the tiny Boer population of the ‘Transvaal’  people was under threat from a much bigger population of warring African tribes in the Transvaal Republic and on the Republic’s borders (remember this was before the discovery of gold in 1886 and before the future ZAR Republic was rich in arms and munitions).

The reason why the Transvaal Boers were under threat is that they were annexing tribal land by force and demanding tax from various tribal groups for the land (and forcing labour) on land they were allowed to occupy. This had stirred up the Pedi, led by Sekhukune I and resulted in a war in 1876 which is recorded as a Boer defeat.  To the East the very powerful Zulu kingdom was also making claims on ‘Transvaal’ territory.

This ‘Black African’ uprising was one the Boers could not cope with alone.  So the Boers INVITED the British to Colonise their Republic and protect them.

The Black Africans in the Transvaal Republic felt they had a case too, and they too called on the British to help them from what they saw as Transvaal Republic aggression, land grabbing and subjection.  They also INVITED the British to protect them.

All good then, invited by EVERYONE in the Transvaal Republic the British moved into the Transvaal on the 12th April 1877 to settle the peace, annexed it as British Colony,  with no resistance they took down the ZAR ‘Vier-Kleur’ and hoisted the Union Flag (Jack) over Pretoria and erected a British government.  In doing so the ex-Boer Republic also handed   over the money, tax would now be collected by the British – all tax, the taxes on mining and the taxes on land.

In addition, to protect the ex-Boer capital they built forts around Pretoria (Johannesburg did not really exist as a complete mining city and some of these forts in Pretoria are still there as an inconvenient reminder of this history). For their efforts, the British got to expand their territory in Africa (more land for them) suiting their expansionist Imperialism agenda right down to the ground, everyone happy right?

But not for long, the British had crushed the Zulu threat in 1879 (Anglo-Zulu War), with the threat gone, it did not take long before the British policies on Black African land rights and their policies of taxation of Boer land became an issue with the resident Boer population.  It all came to a head with the Boers when the British confiscated one Boer’s wagon in lieu of his backdated tax, which he refused to pay.  This brought them into direct conflict with a Boer Commando drafted to help the farmer and simply put the Boers now wanted their old Republic back and the British OUT.  This then kicked off the 1st Anglo-Boer War, the ‘Transvaal War’ in November 1880.

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The Siege of Rustenburg, 1st Anglo-Boer War

So what was the issue really – it can’t just be one wagon?  We have to ask ‘whose land is it anyway’ and ‘who really needed it protected from who’?  The Boer case lies in two events in history which occurred more or less at the same time, the ‘Great Trek’ and the ‘Mfecane’.

The turbulent early 1800’s

Its complicated history, but in a nutshell in the early 1800’s are the key, specifically the period 1819 to 1838 – this was the epicentre of events in South Africa which were to shape the problem we have in South Africa today, especially as to ‘freedoms and land’.

It all started in one part of the country on the 1st December 1834 when the British took the bold decision to ban slavery in the Cape Colony and in addition gave franchise (the ‘vote’) and property ownership rights to all its inhabitants – Black and White (Setter, Coloured and Indigenous) on an equal footing.  This did not sit well with the  mainly Dutch (with a blend of French and German) farmers many of which found themselves in an intolerable situation as ex-slave owners and they chose, just a short 6 months later, in June 1834, to up-sticks and leave the British colony and their endless meddling in their social structures, beliefs and social spheres.  At the same time taking with them into South Africa’s hinterland their ideologies of racial servitude, ideologies which would underpin the future Boer Republics which they formed.  They would also form a new nation an ‘Afrikaner’ one, with an Afrikaans language both named after their ‘land’ in ‘Africa’ – essentially a ‘White African Tribe’.

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The Great Trek – artists impression

Around the same time, in another part of the country Shaka Zulu and the Zulu nation  was born.  In 1819 Shaka Zulu managed to unite, through force and war, a number of small tribes into a newly established ‘Zulu nation’.   Like the Boer ‘Afrikaners’ their nation did not exist as a ‘Zulu’ one prior to the early 1800’s.

The 1st ‘depopulation’ of land

So when and how did these northern ‘Black African Tribes’ establish themselves in South Africa? The answer lies in the Mfecane (meaning ‘the crushing’), also known by the Sesotho name Difaqane (scattering, forced dispersal or forced migration).  This great  displacement of Black tribal people took place between 1815 and about 1840.

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King Shaka – artists impression

As King Shaka created a very militaristic Zulu Kingdom (situated in the territory between the Tugela River and Pongola River) his forces expanded outwards in a wave, subjecting or simply annihilating all other peoples.  This expansionism also became the prelude to  the Mfecane, which spread from this Zulu epicentre. The forced movement of peoples caused many displaced tribes to wage war on those in other territories, leading to widespread warfare and death as well as the consolidation of various tribes.  Notably, it brought up the Matabele actions who dominated in what was the ‘Transvaal’ when Mzilikazi, a king of the Matabele, who between 1826 to 1836 ordered widespread killings and reorganised his territory to establish the new Ndebele order. The death toll is estimated between 1 to 2 million people (it cannot be satisfactory determined), however the result can, as simply put was massive swaths of land in the region became depopulated, either entirely or partially.

Now, enter the trekking ‘white tribe’ Afrikaner Boers, who in 1836 whilst all this is taking place arrive in the same place as the Mfecane, and to survive as nation and not be ethnically cleansed  themselves in addition to the other tribes, the Boers take on by force this warring Matabele nation and then they take on the warring Zulu nation by force of arms, the cumulation was the Battle of Blood River on the 16th December 1838.

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Artists impression of the Battle of Blood River – artist unknown

The Battle of Blood River is significant, not just for the Boers, but for all future Black South Africans who are not of Zulu or Matabele ethnic origin.  In effect the Boers, by decimating the Matabele army and then the Zulu army put a temporary end to their respective fighting capabilities and therefore put an end to the Mfecane, they ended what is South Africa’s first and only mass genocide and ethnic cleansing.  It’s an ironic twist but the very existence of any of these ‘Black’ South Africans in South Africa today (other than the aforementioned Matabele and Zulu), and the very fact they are even identified as tribes and exist as nations, is largely thanks to the Afrikaner Voortrekkers – the ‘white tribe’ Boer nation.  They literally owe them their lives and nationhood.

Now, as to the old ‘half truth’ the land was ’empty’ or ‘traded fairly’ so the Boers could occupy it.  In part there is truth, some of the land had been depopulated by the Mfecane also many tribes welcomed the Voortrekkers giving them parcels of land in trade and in grateful thanks for their ‘protection’ against been slaughtered by Matabele or Zulu armies. All good right – fair is fair?  Not so, it’s only partly true.  There’s a more sinister side to the formation of the two Boer Republics, not all the land was fairly settled, the two Boer Republics also embarked on expansionism to establish borders and forced various tribal Africans from some of their land at the same time as annexing land belonging to various chiefdoms and putting it under Boer ownership.

1820 Settlers 

To be fair the Boers, the British in the early 1800’s were also securing and expanding their own borders and territory (land) and endeavoured to repel the southward migration of the Xhoza tribe, driven very much by the Mfecane up north.  This issue came to a head around Grahamstown, on what was known as the ‘Border’.

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British 1820 Settlers arriving in South Africa

In the UK, the end of  the napoleonic wars at the Battle of Waterloo 18 June 1815 posed a problem, they had massive unemployment, especially soldiers who were no longer needed and rising debt from fighting the wars.   They solved this by offering citizens, who were to become the ‘1820 Settlers’, their own land, and it was land which they needed reconciled on the ‘Border’ of the Cape Colony.  After a number of small wars were fought with indigenous tribes settling the ‘border’ issue – the British then went about reconciling the land under deed, some farm land was even given under deed to Black African farmers, but others remained controversial and it still is.

The even more turbulent late 1800’s

Now, fast forward to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and a year later to the 1st Anglo-Boer War of 1880.  The African chiefdoms in the North and West Transvaal have recovered from the Mfecane, and have been armed in part by missionaries and traders trading rifles.  Whilst at the same time the Zulu Chiefdom bordering the ‘Natal Colony’ settled by the British and the newly minted British ‘Transvaal Colony’ also now settled by the British, is again back up to fighting strength.  ‘Land’ becomes the central problem again (the Zulu’s were really not that interested in gold).

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President Thomas Burgers

Consider for the underpinning tensions leading up to the 1st Anglo-Boer War  (The Transvaal War) in 1880.  The British annexed the Transvaal in 1877 at the invitation of the out-going ‘Boer’ Transvaal President, Thomas Burgers.  President Burgers laid squarely the blame for bringing the British to the Transvaal at the future President, Paul Kruger and his cabal.  His  blame and anger is expressed with this most extraordinary outburst and it is most illuminating:

“I would rather be a policeman under a strong government than a President of such a State. It is you—you members of the Raad and the Boers—who have ruined the country, who have sold your independence for a drink. You have ill-treated the natives, you have shot them down, you have sold them into slavery, and now you have to pay the penalty.”

The missionary, Rev John Mackenzie, gives us another example. Here is how Mackenzie described the motives behind the First Boer War: 

“The Transvaal rising (1st Anglo Boer War) was not dictated, as was believed in England, by a (Boer) love of freedom and preference for a (Boer) republic rather than a limited monarchy (Great Britain). It was inspired by men who were planning a policy which would banish the English language and English influence from South Africa. Their action was a blow directly dealt against freedom, progress, and union of Europeans in South Africa.”

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Paul Kruger

After Kruger et al regained control of the Transvaal, another missionary, the Rev John Moffat, was tasked with giving the news to some of the black tribal leaders who would again be abandoned to their tender mercies: 

“for the most part there was the silence of despair. One gentle old man, Mokhatle, a man of great influence, used the language of resignation, ‘When I was a child, the Matabele came, they swept over us like the wind and we bowed before them like the long white grass on the plains. They left us and we stood upright again. The Boers came and we bowed ourselves under them in like manner. The British came and we rose upright, our hearts lived within us and we said: Now we are the children of the Great Lady. And now that is past and we must lie flat again under the wind—who knows what are the ways of God?’”

The thoughts of a few more African leaders are equally illuminating:

In response to the endless violent expansion of the pre-annexation Transvaal into their territory, Montsioa Toane, Chief of the Barolong, requested that Great Britain take his people under imperial protection. In a letter addressed to ‘His Excellency Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner, Sir P. Wodehouse, KCB’, the chief requested “refuge under your protecting wings from the injustice of the Transvaal Republic, whose government have lately, by proclamation, included our country within the possessions of the said Republic”.
He went on to explain: “…without the least provocation on our side, though the Boers have from time to time murdered some of my people and enslaved several Balala villages, the Transvaal Republic deprives us, by said proclamation, of our land and our liberty, against which we would protest in the strongest terms, and entreat your Excellency, as Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner, to protect us.”

Chief-khama-IIIIn 1876, King Khama, Chief of the Bamangwato people from northern Bechuanaland, joined the appeal: 

“I write to you, Sir Henry, in order that your queen may preserve for me my country, it being in her hands. The Boers are coming into it, and I do not like them. Their actions are cruel among us black people. We are like money, they sell us and our children. I ask Her Majesty to defend me, as she defends all her people. There are three things which distress me very much: war, selling people, and drink. All these things I shall find in the Boers, and it is these things which destroy people to make an end of them in the country. The custom of the Boers has always been to cause people to be sold, and to-day they are still selling people.”

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King Cetshwayo

Even King Cetawayo of the Zulu laid the blame for the tensions which led to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 against the British squarely at the feet of the Transvaal Boers, now this is ironic from the leaders of Zulu themselves, he said: 

“This war (the Zulu War) was forced on me and the Zulus. We never desired to fight the English. The Boers were the real cause of that war. They were continually worrying the Zulus about their land and threatening to invade the country if we did not give them land, and this forced us to get our forces ready to resist, and consequently the land became disturbed, and the Natal people mistakenly believed we were preparing against them.”

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John X Merriman

Just prior to the 1st Anglo-Boer and the British annexation of the ‘Transvaal Colony’, in 1885, the liberal Cape politician, John X. Merriman described Kruger’s newly independent, and ever-expanding, republic as follows: “The policy of the Transvaal was to push out bands of freebooters, and to get them in quarrels with the natives. They wished to push their border over the land westwards, and realize the dream of President Pretorius, which was that the Transvaal should stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The result was robbery, rapine and murder.”

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Dr Abraham Kuyper

The ZAR ‘Transvaal’ Republic’s main-cheerleader in Europe, Dr Kuyper, commented enthusiastically on the racial policies of the Republic: “The English prided themselves on protecting the imaginary rights of the natives… The Boers are not sentimentalists, but are eminently practical. They recognized that these Hottentots and Basutos were an inferior race.”

Majuba

Things came to a head in the 1st Anglo-Boer War at The Battle of Majuba Hill (near Volksrust, South Africa) on 27 February 1881.  This was the main and decisive battle of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War). It was a resounding victory for the Boers and the battle is considered to have been one of the most humiliating defeats of British arms in history.

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It sent the British back over their border to Natal, but it also resulted in a very uneasy ‘peace’ as to the British ‘Transvaal Colony’.  In the aftermath of the war the South African Republic (Transvaal) regained its independence. The Pretoria Convention (1881)  and the London Convention (1884) laid down the terms of the peace agreement.  In terms of land the Pretoria agreement settled the Transvaal’s borders and re-established an independent Boer Republic again, but it still had to have its foreign relations and policies regarding black people approved by the British government.  The new version of the Boer Transvaal Republic was also not allowed by the British to expand towards the West (and link with the Atlantic Ocean).

These policies meant that the Transvaal was still under British suzerainty or influence. In 1884 the London Convention was signed. The Transvaal was given a new Western border and adopted the name of the South African Republic (ZAR). Even then, the ZAR still had to get permission from the British government for any treaty entered into with any other country other than the Orange Free State.

An ‘uneasy’ peace

The Boers saw this as a way for the British government to interfere in Transvaal affairs and this led to tension between Britain and ZAR. This increased steadily until the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in 1899, especially with the on-set of gold mining. which saw tens of thousands of British miners settle in the Transvaal.  Gold mining was done under concession from Kruger’s government.  Kruger took the position that his people, the Boers, were farmers and not miners, so he gave British mining concerns a mandate to mine and pay the ZAR government a hefty tax for the privilege. Initially mining in the Transvaal was an all British affair – from the mining concerns, to the infrastructure (rail and buildings) and even right down to the labour.  Again ‘land’ had been conceded by the Boer Republic to British miners and companies.  As inconvenient truths go, they already ‘owned’ the gold at the onset of the 2nd Boer War and had no reason to ‘steal’ it.

The unsettling problem for the British and the Boers was a demographic and representation one, there were more Britons on the reef than Boers.  These British citizens were denied political representation and citizenship qualification periods became an issue (Kruger realised if he allowed citizenships after 5 years residency he would lose his state).

Also the Boer State was crushing political protest on the reef in a jack-booted and heavy-handed manner using their Police, known as ZARP. Things came to a head with a privateer raid (supported privately by Rhodes) called the Jameson Raid in 1895 which was planned in the billiards room of the Rand Club in Johannesburg (and not by British Parliament in Whitehall as is incorrectly assumed – in fact to British politicians the whole affair came as uncomfortable surprise).  The Raid, financed by the mine owners and not the British government, was intended to trigger a simmering civil revolt on the reef. The revolt was crushed by the Boers.

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Jamesons Last Stand The Battle Of Doornkop 1896.

This unrest and uneasy peace established after the 1st Anglo Boer War all came to a another head when negotiations on citizenship and political representation of the Transvaal Britons broke down.  To settle the dispute the Boers declared war on Britain and invaded the British colonies late 1899 – in effect they wanted a swift victory whilst British forces were weak and unsupported by any substantial expeditionary force – as they did at Majuba and weaken the British negotiation hand, re-set the table so to speak.

It backfired. The mandate given to the Boers to re-establish their ‘British Transvaal Colony’ as an independent Boer Republic lasted barely 15 years after the London Convention peace agreement which properly ended the 1st Anglo-Boer War and finally established the ZAR territorial borders.

To the British, there was an ‘old’ score to settle with the Transvaal Boers, and it had nothing to do with ‘gold’ and everything to do with territory – ‘land’.  It is best summed up by Churchill who reflected on the 1st Anglo-Boer War as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” – and now they wanted their Colony back.

Mjuba

Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

1st Anglo-Boer War – Part 2, the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

Now, as ‘Boer War’ 2 is the logical expansion of ‘Boer War’ 1, consider that these tensions over land and the whole of the Transvaal had by the late 1800’s escalated somewhat.  In the intervening period between ‘Anglo-Boer War’ 1 and ‘Anglo-Boer War’ 2,  gold was discovered in the Transvaal, and in addition to this the local Black tribes flourished, with no more large wars to fight and no Mfecane and aided by the introduction of medicine by missionaries, this mounting black population of the Transvaal added to the hundreds of thousands of mainly British immigrant mine workers now settled in the Transvaal.

Now, with a ‘old score’ to settle over the Transvaal territory, along with a simmering revolt of miners over their rights to the land, the Boer declaration of war against the British, provided a ‘Casus Belli’ to the British to again wage war them again, and so began the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902). To give perspective of how long the ZAR lasted, from the time the British Union ‘Jack’ was taken down over Pretoria to the time it was put up again took a mere 16 years.

The 2nd ‘depopulation’ of land

Back to the issue of land.  During the 2nd Anglo-Boer war the British, after winning the ‘conventional’ war phase were forced into a second and more bitter phase,  guerrilla war with disposed Boer governments now ‘in the field’ and running their Republics from the veldt, a moving and endlessly fraught war where Boer forces relied on their communities and families for supply to keep the fighting.

Lord Kitchener in an attempt to bring the war to rest adopted a policy depriving the Boer forces of supply, and so began a policy of ‘concentration camps’.  This can be better described as ‘forced removal’ from land and the placing of citizens in ‘deportation camps’, it involved rounding up of both White and Black civilians in demarcated conflict zones and effectively ‘depopulating’ the land and moving all the people to isolated camps.  The policy which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and people deprived of their land leaves a deep scar on many South Africans, and not just the white Afrikaners, the black South Africans caught up are equally traumatised.

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So, now we have an interesting dilemma for the current citizens of South Africa who own vast tracks of land in the Republic, the inconvenient truth is that not only was it ‘depopulated’ by the Zulu Kingdom in the early 1800’s, it was depopulated again by the United Kingdom – eighty or so years later.

The international case

Now here is where the issue of land ownership gets interesting, and funnily it is in line with the issues now surrounding the Palestinian question and Israel (and best illustrated by this case as it surrounds ‘land’ ownership and war).  Many people are not familiar with the underlying problem of land under occupation in Israel.  In international law an occupying force can do anything within limitations on the land it occupies as long as a state of war exists.  This has become a thorny issue with the Palestinians who, like the Boers, were deposed of their land by war – land which the British sold to Palestinians under title-deed whist Palestine was a British protectorate (those pesky British again), and this land is now under private title deed is owned by Palestinians and occupied by Israelis – and it makes up massive portions of modern Israel.

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If given back to the legal owners it will most certainly unseat Israel as a state and put millions of dollars invested in land at risk.  The only way Israel can hold onto the land legally is to be in a constant state of war with the Palestinians (not really the other way round – see annual Palestinian protests when the bring the house keys and title deeds to their land to the fore – which over the border are now occupied by Israeli families or developed into multi-million dollar property estates and shopping malls).

How does this odd bit of International law apply to South Africa’s farmers. Simply put they were deposed of their land during the 2nd Anglo-Boer war, it came under British control under the edicts of war.  Unlike the Palestinians the Boers were allowed to return to the land, land on which families were decimated and could not be re-settled was re-allocated by the British and the Union governments after the war, the last ‘legal’ owner of this land expropriated during the war were in fact the British.    In the subsequent years after The South African War, as a colony of Britain and then under British administration and dominion as a Union, the country went about formalising land title and ownership from the old Boer Republics and concluding war repatriation and re-settlement.

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Palestine ‘Keys’ and ‘Deeds’ protest symbolised by their old keys to their houses in Israel

So, in our modern day, if this land is now taken away without compensation, the Israeli/Palestinian dilemma and the annual ‘keys’ protest rears it head, where the ‘British’ issue is now again at the forefront of title deeds and like the Palestinians, the dispossessed modern Boer family will want to turn to Britain for an answer, adding to the many dispossessed Zimbabwean white farmers with a similar case.  That would be a nasty surprise for the modern British Foreign Secretary.

Here’s another interesting question over South African land located in the Centre and Northern  provinces and the two seismic events that depopulated much of it, not to mention the British sale of land in the Cape, especially in contested ‘Border’ region which they purposely ‘settled’.

Would a claim now for restitution or compensation for land ‘re-appropriated without compensation’ be laid at the feet of the Zulu King or at the feet of the British Queen?

In Conclusion

All very complicated this land reformation business, now an almost impossible job to simply unbundle through declarations of ‘mine – you stole it’ and simply grabbing it.  A case example here is the land grabbing which recently took place in Midrand and Hermanus, this land has nothing to do with the disputed historical African territories unseated by the expansion and creation of the old Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and Cape Colony borders, and the people occupying it are not all the proper ancestors anyway.  This is a political grab using a very bent interpretation of history.

There is value in identity of having a ‘homeland’, but whose people are we referring to when we say ‘our people’, the ‘homeland of the Afrikaner nation is also Africa. By all means look at the land taken by force of arms from various Chiefdoms as their tribal land borders and were they stood after the Mfecane, and the resultant occupation by Zulu, Matabele, Brit and Boer alike and not the land ‘sold’ to the Boers or the British for that matter for trade or protection.   Present the historical evidence showing which families and grouping were unseated by force of occupation and how this ‘stolen’ land was then put under plough by the occupiers.  There’s not much to go by in the way of arable and profitable ‘land’ here, but lets challenge it properly.

Generally the historically contested farm land is nowhere near the bulk of multi-million rand privately owned title-deed farms – so really of no political value.  Unless you provide the argument that all land was occupied by whites, and this is not historically true at all.  In which case everybody who has a white skin can have his property simply taken away – now we are into a ludicrous argument, and one used to incite racial disharmony and hatred.

Urban land, depopulated by Apartheid policy only really accounts to small areas located near Johannesburg and Cape Town city centrals,  Land, which now, because it worth literally millions of Rand, is under contention, the reason for the slow progress is that multiple families are making claims to the land, families which actually own it and families which rented it.  District 6 is a prime example, it really is a political quagmire as its now vastly profit driven and less about the ‘home’ it once offered.  Also in reality it cannot be settled by huge numbers of the ‘people’ offered by the EFF – they want the nice well run profitable farm land which is under title-deed and owned for decades by private individuals (who are not Black) – whether it’s under real historic contention or not, so it’s entirely wrong of Cyril Ramaposa to cite District 6 in his SONA address as a key underpinning social cause of the ANC’s entire land without compensation drive.

The biggest dilemma facing the proposed amendment to the Constitution is that in reality the land everyone in the ANC and EFF wants and is highly productive – and its land which has not only been depopulated once, its been depopulated twice and resettled twice over after the end of the Mfcane and 2nd Anglo-Boer War respectively.

The lands negotiated with and allocated to the Zulu kingdom are even a more thornier question and we might want to ask is the Zulu kingdom is going to pay for land depopulated by their expansionism and militarism, so too can the same question be asked of the Matabele.  There another human trait here, one that will not go away once this particular monkey is out the cage, it’s called greed, and it’s an intrinsic human condition the ANC has been indulging itself in, time and again.  Here is where the Zulu have drawn the line when Mangosuthu Buthelezi rightly accused the ANC and EFF of ‘playing with fire’.

The simple truth is this.  ‘Land’ ownership in South Africa has been defined by war and armed ‘struggle’, and not just war between ‘Blacks and Whites’, war between ‘Blacks and Blacks’ and even war between ‘Whites and Whites’.  The burning question is, will it be defined again by another ‘war’  – another armed ‘struggle’?

Related articles and Links

Concentration Camps; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Concentration Camps; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

Majuba; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Kruger and Victoria; Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References from Wikipedia, the South African History Association on-line, quotes gleaned from ‘getting to the source’ by Chris Ash. Colourised 2nd-Anglo Boer War photograph copyright Tinus Le Roux.

Smuts Barracks; Berlin

Not only did Jan Smuts have a Kibbutz named after him in Israel, as well as pub named after him in London, the famous ‘Smuts Barracks’ in Berlin was also named after him.  The barracks were the home to an SS Panzer Division during the Second World War and was occupied by the British after the war, the barracks is particularly well-known because it was on constant high alert during the Cold War and Berlin Wall divide.

Smuts Barracks was situated on Wilhelmstraße, a street in the Spandau district of Berlin, and the base of the British armoured contingent to Germany, it’s located next to what was the famous ‘Spandau Prison’ . Also in Wilhelmstraße, Spandau Prison was completed in 1881. It was occupied by seven Nazi war criminals, convicted in the Nuremberg Trials after World War 2, including Rudolf Hess, who remained its only prisoner there for many years until he committed suicide. After Hess’ death the prison was demolished and replaced by a shopping centre.

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Smuts Barracks (above and below), taken during 1 RTR’s tour of duty between Feb 67 and Jan 69.

The British armoured squadron based at Smuts Barracks consisted of 18 modified Chieftain tanks, painted in their renown urban camouflage, and were at a constant state of readiness. This “bombed up” state, ensured a speedy counter attack should the Soviet Union (Russia and East Germany mainly) breach the Berlin wall.

The last unit/squadron to be based here was C Squadron, The 14th/20th Royal King’s Hussars (1989-1993), a Cavalry Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps. The squadron bar was known as the “Lion and Bear”.

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RTR at Smuts Barracks

Between 1948 and 1952, the Smuts Barracks was used by the following Regiments stationed in Germany:

Feb 1948 Sqn, 11 Hussars (armoured cars)
May 1949 ‘A’ Sqn, Royal Dragoons (armoured cars)
Mar 1950 ‘A’ Sqn, Royal Horse Guards (armoured cars)
Feb 1951 Sqn, 3rd Hussars

In Feb 1952 a permanent unit was formed, designated 1st Independent Sqn Royal Tank Regt. It was disbanded December 1957. Between December  1957 and Aug 1962, the squadron came from the APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) regiment in BAOR:

Dec 1957 ‘B’ Sqn, l4lh/20th Hussars
Nov 1960 ‘C’ Sqn, 4th Royal Tank Regt

Another permanent unit was established in March 1963, designated Independent Sqn Royal Tank Regt; it was disbanded November 1965.

After that date, the squadron normally came from the training regiment at Catterick:

Feb 1965 Sqn, Queens Own Hussars
Feb 1967 A Sqn, 1st Royal Tank Regt
Jan 1969 Sqn, 9th/l2th Lancers
Dec 1970 Sqn, 1st Queen’s DG
Dec 1972 ‘A’ Sqn, 4th Royal Tank Regt
Dec 1974 ‘B’ Sqn, 5th Royal Inniskilling DG
Dec 1976 ‘B’ Sqn, Royal Scots DG
Apr 1979 ‘D’ Sqn, Royal Hussars
Feb 1981 ‘D’ Sqn, 4th/7th DG
Apr 1983 ‘D’ Sqn, Queens Own Hussars
May 1985 ‘B’ Sqn, 14th/20th Hussars

From 1985, the squadron came from the 14th/20th Hussars who were based at Münster:
Jan 1988 ‘C’ Sqn took over. The squadron was withdrawn in 1991.

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Jan Smuts

Also based at Smuts Barracks  were 38 (Berlin) Field Squadron RE. 38 Field Company was stationed in West Germany as part of 23 Field Engineer Regiment when in 1957 it was amalgamated with the RE Troops Berlin to become 38 (Berlin) Field Squadron Royal Engineers. The Squadron remained in Berlin providing engineer support to the Berlin Brigade until 1994 when it was disbanded as part of options for change.

Smuts Barracks was also the home of the Sapper Berlin Field Squadron (38 Fd Sqn RE).

So there you have it, another legacy of Jan Smuts and an island of South Africa’s contribution to the Second World War and the Cold War after it.  The Barracks is now closed and under private ownership.

Related work and links

Jan Smuts: A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts

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


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Large reference, photos and extract from BAOR Locations – Smuts Barracks on-line.

The Royal Air Force’s 100th Birthday and its founder – Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts

Jan Christian Smuts by Marie Vermeulen Breedt

If you enter the Royal Air Force club located at 128 Piccadilly, London you are greeted in the foyer by a famous South African statesman – Jan Smuts.  A bust of Jan Smuts stands at the entrance, and for very good reason – he founded the Royal Air Force, an Air Force which turned 100 years old on the 1st April 2018.

It was on the ‘Smuts Report’ submitted by in August 1917 that the plans for a separate arm of service, an air service – independent of the services of the Navy and Army were laid down by Prime Minister Llyod George’s war cabinet.  The Smuts Report is the ‘Instrument’ by which the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed.

Smut’s prophetic words in this report still ring true “the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate”.

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The Smuts Report

The War Cabinet accepted Smuts’ recommendation to amalgamate the two separate air forces (Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service) under one single and independent Air Force.  Smuts was then asked to lead an Air Organisation Committee to put it into effect. The Air Force Bill received Royal assent from the King on the 29 November 1917, which gave the newly formatted Air Force the prefix of ‘Royal’ (up to that point the idea was to call it the ‘Imperial Air Force’).  To see more on Smuts and the centenary of the Smuts report follow this link (Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force )Royal Air Force WW1The RAF came together on the 1st April 1918, a date recognised as the RAF’s officially recognised birthdate. On its creation the RAF, in the final year of World War 1, it was the most powerful air force in the world with over 20,000 aircraft and over 300,000 personnel.

The Second World War proved to be the Royal Air Force’s ‘finest hour’ when the tiny airforce held back the entire German Nazi advance on the United Kingdom during ‘The Battle of Britain’, leaving the United Kingdom and its Allies to eventually liberate Europe.  A time when Winston Churchill aptly christened the men of the RAF as the ‘few’ and famously said;

Never in the field of human conflictwas so much owed by so many to so few”.

Many South Africans have served in the Royal Air Force and continue to serve.  Some famous ones include Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, Andrew Cameron Kiddie, Sailor Malan, Roger Bushell, Zulu Lewis, Dutch Hugo, Pat Pattle, JJ Le Roux, Dingbat Saunders, John Nettleton VC, Edwin Swales VC, John Howe and many more.

Today the Royal Air Force is a little smaller, but no less effective. The RAF maintains an operational fleet of aircraft described by the RAF as being “leading-edge” in terms of technology. This largely consists of fixed-wing aircraft, including Fighter and Strike aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, ISTAR and SIGINT aircraft, aerial refuelling aircraft and strategic and tactical aircraft.  The majority of the RAF’s rotary wing aircraft form part of the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command.

The majority of the Royal Air Force personnel are based in the UK, with many others serving on operations – principally over Iraq and Syria and others are based at long Erving overseas bases on the Ascension Islands, Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

Recent large scale operations and interventions, after the ‘Cold War’ by the Royal Air Force include the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo War, the 2001 War in Afghanistan, the 2003 War in Iraq and the 2011 Intervention in Libya.

Here is to salute ‘those magnificent men in their flying machines’ and their South African founder – Field Marshal Jan Smuts on their 100th Birthday.

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Related Work and links

For more realted work and links on South Africans in the Royal Air Force, follow these Obervation Post Links:

Sailor Malan : Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Zulu Lewis: The South African pilot who earned ‘Ace in a Day’ – TWICE! Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis DFC and Bar

JJ Le Roux: The South African fighter ace who ended Rommel’s war

Edwin Swales VC: Maj. Edwin Swales VC – a true South African hero’s legacy now under threat

Roger Bushell: The Great Escape … was led by a South African!

John Nettleton VC: John Nettleton VC – an unknown South African Victoria Cross recipient

Pat Pattle: One of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of WW2 was a little known South African! Meet Pat Pattle.

John Howe: Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!

Ian Pyott: Connecting Zeppelins, Marlene Dietrich and South Africa’s favourite biscuit – Romany Creams!

Cameron Kiddie: Kimberley’s local baker was also a WW1 Flying Ace

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC: South Africa’s own WW1 Flying Ace

Dutch Hugo: “Dutch” Hugo another Afrikaner hero who is celebrated as one of “The Few”

Albie Gotze LdH: “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference Wikipedia.  Oil Painting of Jan Christian Smuts by Marie Vermeulen Breedt.

Rorke’s drift and the last South African medal to be issued by a British monarch!

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Queen Elizabeth II

Here’s something on the SADF/SANDF’s John Chard Decoration and Medal series for long service in the Citizen Force, many who even hold the medal may not even know.  But did you know, the John Chard Decoration and John Chard Medal Series was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 (just two short months after she became Queen) and it is the last medal to issued by a British monarch and worn by members in all four South African military formations – Army, Navy, Air Force and Medical Service.

The John Chard Medal was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II on 6 April 1952, during the Tercentenary Jan van Riebeeck Festival, to replace the South African Union Defence Force’s Efficiency Medal and the Air Efficiency Award which had been awarded to members of the Citizen Force between 1939 and 1952.  The John Chard medal series is a ‘service medal’ awarded for pre-determined tenure of service to the statuate South African defence forces.

So why ‘Rorke’s Drift’?

The John Chard medal and decoration was named after John Chard VC, the lieutenant in command of the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War, when it was attacked by Zulus on the 22nd of January 1879.  

For anyone whose seen the landmark movie ‘Zulu’, Lt. John Chard is played by Stanley Baker.  Baker stars alongside Michael Caine who plays Lt. Gonville Bromhead.

The two officers, John Chard and Gonville Bromhead both earned Victoria Crosses’ along with nine others in defending Rorke’s Drift against a Zulu army attack.  This is the largest tally of Victoria Crosses (the ultimate British award for Valour) from one single engagement, per head this battle has the highest concentration of bravery awards and decorations ever received (11 Victoria Crosses, one VC Mentioned in Dispatches and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals).  There were only just over 150 British and colonial troops who successfully defended the missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. It is an act that has never been repeated, and likely never to happen again in future.

So why so many Victoria Crosses for so few defenders?  Well, simply put , a significant part of the British expeditionary force had been annihilated at the Battle of Isandlwana on the same day 22 January 1879, and the little missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift was the last line of defence should the Zulu Army have built on its victory at Isandlwana and invaded the British colony.  The Natal Colony would have been for the most part left defenceless whilst Lord Chemsford and the remaining bulk of British forces searched for the Zulu army in the Zulu Kingdom itself.  The action of these ‘few’ at Rorke’s Drift literally saved an entire British colony.

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The Battle of Isandlwana was an embarrassing defeat for the British. The British Empire suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous foe with vastly inferior military technology. The site today is most interesting, because of the hard ground the British were unable to bury their dead, so they built stone cairns where they fell to cover them instead. These cairns, painted white – are a grizzly reminder of the calamity which took place there and literally map and bring the battlefield into perspective.

So why is John Chard singled out?

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John Chard VC

John Chard was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers who was busy building a pontoon bridge across the river, when he received the news that Isandlwana was under fierce attack.

Leaving his work, Chard rushed to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, here he calmly set about building defensive walls around the hospital using bags of grain and biscuit tins.  Chard took up overall Command to defend the missionary buildings and it was his strategy and tactics during the battle that literally saved the day and helped to avoid complete annihilation of his small force of wounded and sick men, and a sprinkling of some very scared and bewildered Natal Native Continent soldiers.  The redoubt he ordered be built was key to the British success on the day.

For his role in the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, Queen Victoria awarded the Victoria Cross to him, he also received a promotion to captain (he would retire a Colonel).  To get a modern perspective on this in living image, this compilation from the movie ‘Zulu’ captures the destruction at Isandlwana and the fierce fighting in defending Rorke’s Drift, take the short time to watch it – look out for the concentrated volley fire and the use of the redoubt – a tactic missing from the Battle of Isaldlwana but used to absolute effect at Rorke’s Drift.

Citation 

medalThe citation for Chard’s and Bromhead’s Victoria Crosses says everything:

THE Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Soldiers of Her Majesty’s Army, whose claims have been submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, for their gallant conduct in the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus, as recorded against their names, viz.:—

For their gallant conduct at the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus on the 22nd and 23rd  January, 1879.

Royal Engineers Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) J. R. M. Chard

2nd Battalion 24th Regiment Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) G. Bromhead

The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke’s Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it.

The Lieutenant-General adds, that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question.

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Painting by Alphonse de Neuville – The defence of Rorke’s Drift

The John Chard Medal set

Even we learn something new everyday, what makes this surprising is that a medal issued by a British Monarch remained in the service of The South African Defence Force for so long, especially after it was reformatted after the National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth and they embarked on a campaign to change the South African military emblems, insignia and medals and rid the SADF of anything “British” (especially the Queen’s crown which now had to go).

In many instances these changes where resisted and a number of civilian force “Regiments” where able to hold onto some of their British heritage – however the medal sets where all changed and new medals instituted, except the John Chard Service medal series which survived the changes.

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John Chard 10 year service medal

The medal was awarded to all ranks of the Citizen Force for twelve years efficient service, not necessarily continuous. After a further eight years a recipient could qualify for the award of the John Chard Decoration (JCD).

This was later changed in 1986 to allow Citizen Force members to earn the John Chard Medal after ten years service, not necessarily continuous and the John Chard Decoration after twenty years.

The John Chard medal comes in heavy brass and the John Chard  Decoration comes in heavy silver, and is not only beautiful to handle, but also fairly valuable. The early medals and awards bore the royal cypher on the rear, while the later ones bore the coat of arms of the Republic of South Africa.

The ribbon also carries the arm of service, crossed swords for the South African Army, a spread eagle for the South African Air Force, an anchor for the South African Navy and a Rod of Asclepius for the South African Medical Service.  A ‘bar’ also existed for The John Chard Decoration, which signified 30 years service.

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John Chard Decoration for 20 years service

The John Chard decoration/medal series continued in the SANDF from 1994, but was finally discontinued in 2003 and replaced by the SANDF’s new long service medals. This was done when the new African National Congress (ANC) political dispensation did a sweeping change to all military emblems and insignia to rid it of anything the ‘nationalists’ or ‘colonialists’ instituted (and lets not pull any politically correct punches – to the Zulu nation Rorke’s Drift is symbolic of British imperialist aggression, land grabbing and expansion into an independent Zulu Kingdom).

The John Chard medal is now superseded by the SANDF’s Medaljie sir Troue Diens and the Emblem for Reserve Force Service.  The John Chard medal (and decoration) is still recognised as an ‘official’ medal issued for a statutory force member, and is still worn very proudly in the South African Reserve by those who have received it.

We can’t but think that each time a new political dispensation brings in its particular sweeping changes into the defence force, something by way of tradition gets lost.

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Photo of General Roy Andersen, the head of The South African Reserve by Cornelius Bezuidenhout, notice the John Chard decoration (with bar) and John Chard medal at the far right hand end of his medal set when looking left to right.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Clip of Zulu taken from YouTube, original movie copyright Paramount Pictures, released 1964 Directed by Cy Enfield and Produced by Stanley Baker.