Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One

World War 1 and Jackie the Baboon is seen here on top of a carriage … here’s another famous South African mascot.  Jackie cut an odd figure amongst the British and Empire troops in Wold War 1, for only the South Africans could conjure up an African Baboon as a Regimental mascot, but this was no ordinary Baboon, intelligent and intuitive Jackie would achieve fame and become an iconic war hero in both South Africa and England, here is his story.

An odd choice of Mascot

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Commemorative Postcard with Pvt Marr and Jackie

The story starts in August 1915, just over 100 years ago, at the Marr’s family farm ‘Cheshire’ in Villeria just on the outskirts of Pretoria.  Albert Marr found a Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) on the farm, named him Jackie and adopted his as a beloved family pet.

World War I broke out and along with many other young South African men Albert Marr volunteered for military service. He was mobilised on the 25th August 1915 at Potchefstroom, allocated the rank of Private, his service number was 4927 and he was allocated to the 3rd (Transvaal) Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, a Brigade which was earmarked to fight in France.

The 3rd South African Infantry Regiment, was under the Command of Lt Col E.F. Thackeray and raised mainly from the Transvaal (now Gauging) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  The Regiment was generally known as “The Transvaal Regiment.” B Company were mostly from the Witwatersrand Rifles while C Company were men from the Rand Light Infantry.

Distraught a leaving Jackie behind Pvt. Marr figured it would be a great idea if his pet Baboon could come along with him, so he approached his superiors and (rather surprisingly) got their permission. At first Jackie’s presence was generally ignored, but he was so well-behaved and had such an impressive bearing that he was soon stuck out and the troops took notice of him.  In a short time Jackie was officially adopted by all as the mascot of the 3rd South African Infantry (Transvaal) Regiment,

Once officially enlisted Jackie was given the rank of ‘Private’ and a special uniform was made for him complete with buttons, a cap and regimental badges.  As with any enlisted soldier he also received a pay book and his own rations. He also drilled and marched with his company and would generally entertain the men – and such entertainment would prove invaluable in the months to come as a morale booster, especially to relieve the boredom caused by the stalemate of trench warfare once the 1st South African Infantry Brigade (and the Transvaal Regiment) reached France.

Jackie wore his uniform with some panache, he was also known to light up a cigarette or pipe for his ‘pals’.  He also had a sharp salute for any officer passing him. He would stand at ease when commanded to do so, placing his feet apart and hands behind his back in the military style. At the mess table he used a knife and fork as well as a tea-cup in the proper manner.

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At War

Albert Marr and Jackie became and odd pairing, absolutely inseparable and for all intents and purposes they became friends.  The two of them first saw action during the Senussi Campaign.

The Senussi were a religious sect resident in Libya and Egypt, who were allied to the Ottoman and German Empire.  In the summer of 1915, the Ottomans persuaded the Grand Senussi, Ahmed Sharif es Senussi to declare jihad and attack British-occupied Egypt.

The 1st South African Infantry Brigade along with other British forces was dispatched to Egypt to put an end to the Senussi Jihadi uprising.  At the battle of Agagia, on 26 February 1916, whist fighting the Senussi, Pvt. Albert Marr was shot and wounded in the shoulder.

Whilst waiting for the stretcher bearers to arrive, a distraught Jackie became desperate to do something to comfort Pvt. Marr as he lay on the ground, so he went about licking the wound. By this simple action of trying to comfort a fallen comrade, Jackie became more than just an animal mascot and pet in the eyes of the men in the Regiment, he had now become a fellow comrade.

Albert Marr recovered his wound and rejoined his Regiment.  Both Albert and Jackie then spent three years, on and off, in the front line that was the ‘western front’ in Europe fighting in the mud and blood of the trenches in France and Flanders.  Jackie was even reported to go “over the top” (advancing by breaking cover from the trenches) with the rest of the 3rd South African Infantry (Transvaal) Regiment during the heavy fighting in which they were engaged.

His sharper animal instincts proved highly valuable at night when on guard duty with Albert, he was particularly useful because of his keen eyesight and acute hearing. He would give an early warning of enemy movement or an impending attack by barking and tugging on Pvt. Marr’s tunic.

Wounded in Action

Up to now he and Albert had come through the war in Europe relatively unscathed but in April 1918 that all changed, nearing the end of the war the 1st South African Infantry Brigade found itself been heavily shelled as they withdrew to Reninghelst in Belgium during the Battle of Passchendale.

To protect himself, Jackie was seen to be frantically trying to build a wall of stones about himself, as a rudimentary cover from shell fragments and shrapnel which were bursting all around him.

He never properly completed his protective wall and a jagged piece of shrapnel wounded him in the arm and another nearly severed his leg. At first Jackie refused to be evacuated by the stretcher-bearers; instead he tried vainly to continue building his protective wall, hobbling around in excruciating pain on what had once been his leg held in place by just sinew.

What happens next is best described in the words of Lt-Col R N Woodsend of the Royal Medical Corps who was the attending Doctor.

jackie-mascotIt was a pathetic sight; the little fellow, carried by his keeper, lay moaning in pain, the man crying his eyes out in sympathy, “You must do something for him, he saved my life in Egypt. He nursed me through dysentery”. The baboon was badly wounded, the left leg hanging with shreds of muscle, another jagged wound in the right arm.

We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds. If he died under the anaesthetic perhaps it would be the best thing; as I had never given an anaesthetic to such a patient before, I thought it would be the most likely result. However, he lapped up the chloroform as if it had been whiskey, and was well under in a remarkably short time. It was a simple matter to amputate the leg with scissors and I cleaned the wounds and dressed them as well as I could”.

He came around as quickly as he went under. The problem then was what to do with him. This was soon settled by his keeper: “He is on army strength”. So, duly labelled, number, name, ATS injection, nature of injuries, etc. he was taken to the road and sent by a passing ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station.

It was unsure if the chloroform and the operation would kill Jackie, but funnily it was reported that when the Officer Commanding the Regiment went to check up on him at the Casualty Clearing Station, Jackie sat up in bed and saluted him.

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Jackie and Lt. Col R N Woodsend after his amputation.

Demobilised 

It was the end of active service for both Pvt. Marr and Pvt. Jackie, the war ended shortly afterward on the 11th November 1918. They were both shipped to England, where Jackie immediately became a media celebrity in the English newspapers.

Jackie’s proudest moment in London was to participate in the Lord Mayor’s Day Procession (the featured image at the top shows Jackie and Albert Marr in this parade). From early September to 14 February 1919, Jackie and Private Marr were lent to the Red Cross by the War Office and the South African Government for the purpose of collecting money for sick and wounded soldiers.

They managed to collect a huge amount of money for the Widows and Orphans Fund by allowing the public to pay half a crown to shake Jackie by the hand and five shillings to kiss the baboon.

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Back in South Africa, Jackie was officially discharged at Maitland Dispersal Camp in Cape Town on 26 April 1919.  A proper war veteran now, on his sleeve Jackie wore one gold ‘wound’ stripe and three blue service chevrons, indicating three years of frontline service.

At Maitland Jackie received his official discharge papers, a military pension, plus a Civil Employment Form for discharged soldiers. By the 5th May 1919, both Jackie and Albert were on their last leg of their journey home to their cherished family farm near Pretoria.

After their arrival home, Jackie was again feted over and became the centre of attention.  He was front and forward on his official welcome home parade, and again lead the homecoming victory parade of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, and again he was present at the Peace Parade in Church Square, Pretoria on 31 July 1920, where he proudly received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal.

Albert Marr and Jackie returned to their family farm to recover from ‘shell shock’ (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome PTSD), but the fragile state Jackie was in from the terrors of war tragically killed him on the 22nd May 1921. During an unusually intense highveld thunderstorm, he suffered a heart attack when an intense thunder-clap went off close by.

A sad end to one of South Africa’s most remarkable mascots.  He was mourned and much missed, especially by his friend, comrade and close companion, Albert Marr, who went on to live a long life and passed away at the age of 84 in Pretoria in August 1973.

Jackie now enters the annuals of some very remarkable South African military mascots, which amongst others include Nancy the Springbok (see. The story of Nancy the Springbok), Able Seaman Just Nuisance the Great Dane (see. Able Seaman “Just Nuisance”) and Teddy the Lion (see. Teddy the Recce).


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts and sources include Jackie: The South African baboon soldier by Wildlife TV, August 19th 2013 Military History Journal Vol 16, 2nd December 2013 JACKIE, THE BABOON MASCOT OF 3 SAI DURING THE GREAT WAR, 1914 – 1918 By Sarel Rossouw and Wikipedia.

The Christmas Truce

Just over 100 Years ago, on the 25th December, a remarkable Christmas Day Truce took place during World War 1. The two belligerent armies facing one another in the trenches of the western front heard Christmas carol singing in the opposing trenches and simultaneously and spontaneously approached one another for an informal and impromptu truce – a brief peace to extend a hand of goodwill and mutually enjoy Christmas together.

As this informal truce played out, the men from both opposing sides, initially very weary of one another, gradually ventured out from the safety of their defences and gathered in the middle, known as “no mans land” (or otherwise known as the killing zone).  A true Christmas miracle was beginning to unfold.

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British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial Christmas truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

Here in the middle of what was a place of absolute slaughter they exchanged gifts and played games of football.  Items swapped as gifts included things like insignia, wine, food and chocolate, there is no record of who won the football games (not that it mattered at all), just that games all along the front were enjoyed between both sides using impromptu goal posts.

This remarkable photograph survives of the occasion British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914, front of 11th Brigade, 4th Division. London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments.

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They all returned to their respective trenches to continue the wholesale slaughter that was the Western Front in WW1, but for a short Christmas Day, the spirit of Christmas prevailed and shone a light of hope and peace in what was most certainly the deepest hell of war.

Such is the power of the Christmas spirit and quite remarkable that the sentiment of this day – the power of goodwill and humanity to all – still prevails, and that is quite something.

Sadly things reverted to normal the next day and the carnage of World War 1 trench warfare continued, but this day stands testimony of the natural goodwill of man and the goodness of this most special day on the Christian calendar.

This commercial made in conjunction with the Royal British Legion and Sainsbury’s in 2014 captures this most wonderful moment of man’s goodwill and triumph over adversary and destruction.

 

Merry Christmas from The Observation Post and may we all remember the true spirit of Christmas which shone through so powerfully on this remarkable day.


Written by Peter Dickens. Image copyrights to the Imperial War Museum. Commercial video copyright, Sainsburys.

“General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein

Recently military institutions and veteran organisations have been marking a landmark in world history, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, as usual there has been much fanfare to celebrate this in the United Kingdom – it’s a definitive battle which for the first time gave the British and Commonwealth a glimmer of hope – this battle was to the British and Commonwealth forces what the Battle of Kursk was to the Russians.  It’s a big deal.

South Africa played a key role in the Battle of El Alamein, in fact it was a battle on which much South African life was sacrificed on the crucible of war, after the fall of Tobruk South African honour was at stake and this battle went a long way to redeem it. However, as usual, there was a low-key reaction in South Africa marking this anniversary – it was very much contained to the odd South African Legion of military veterans branch and MOTH shell-hole to remember it.

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Original colour photo taken of a South African position in the North African theatre of operations in 1942 – note the bleak and hard landscape

To the older generation in South Africa, terms such as the ‘Knightsbridge Box’, the ‘Desert  Fox’, the ‘Cauldron’ and the ‘Gazala Gallop’ were common knowledge, as were these words by General Montgomery “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”, in fact these words were a sensation at the time and seen as a national redemption.  But they are now lost completely to the new generation of South Africans.

So, lets give a little recognition to South African sacrifice in this tide turning battle, understand why it is so important and understand why this understated signal sent from General Bernard Montgomery to General Dan Pienaar meant so very much to the generation which came before us.

Prelude to The Battle of El Alamein

For the South Africans the 2nd battle of El Alamein needs to be looked in context of these events – The  Battle of Sidi Rezegh, the Battle of Gazala, the Surrender of Tobruk and the 1st Battle of El Alamein.

The Battle of Sidi Rezegh; (see Sidi Rezegh – South African blood helps turn the tide in North Africa), in November 1941 saw the 1st South African Division’s 5th Brigade fight themselves down, literally to the last man in an outstanding degree of bravery, their sacrifice – to lessen the impact of Rommel’s drive and help save the day for the British to fight another day.

For the 1st South African Division this outstanding action in the field was added to by The Battle of Gazala; By March 1942 the 1st South African Division was deployed along the Gazala line (they made up the Northern sector).  The Gazala line was to the west of Tobruk, the task of defending Tobruk was also left up the South Africans, this time the 2nd South African Infantry Division under General Klopper.

Energised and re-armed General Erwin Rommel – the ‘Desert Fox’, advanced on Egypt (and Tobruk) in May 1942, their mission was to take the Suez Canal and cut Britain from her vast empire (and resources) in the Middle East, India and the Far East.

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General Erwin Rommel (centre) with his staff

Rommel’s armoured advance with at least 10,000 vehicles hit the Allied’s ‘Gazala line’ and then headed south, to make a long sweeping right-hook around the southern end of the line.  They swept past the British 7th Armoured Division in the south and headed back north behind the Gazala line.  The Allied forces reeled and re-deployed catching up with Rommel’s forces in an area known as “The Cauldron” situated between Bir Hakeim and Tobruk. Three days of armoured fighting ensued in the area of ‘the Cauldron’ and Rommel applied pressure in ‘the Cauldron’ ultimately destroying the Allied defenders.

Rommel’s Axis forces then continued to push east to Egypt and forced the British Guards Brigade to withdraw from the Knightsbridge Box on the Gazala Line back to the Tobruk perimeter.  Now on the back-foot, on the 14th June, the British command authorised the withdraw of all units from the Gazala line, and thus began the ‘Gazala Gallop,’ a very hasty retreat.

The Gazala Gallop The 1st South African Division was ordered by British Command to withdraw along the coastal road back towards Tobruk.  They withdrew to series of defensive boxes and actions at Williams Post, Best Post, “Point 187,” Commonwealth Keep and then Acroma. The 21st and 15th Panzer attacks forced the 1st SA Division to fight a rearguard action and to withdraw through each of the respective boxes. Chased by Rommel’s tanks and driving east, the 1st South African division was now spread out between the original Gazala defences and Tobruk trying to make their way east.

By 15 June 1942, the British and Commonwealth forces had started the ‘Gazala Gallop’ in earnest (sarcastically referred because of the rapid nature of the retreat) and withdrew to a new defensive line – set up further east on the Egyptian border at an insignificant railway siding called El Alamein.  This was to be the ‘Last Stand’ by the British and Commonwealth Forces, behind El Alamein lay Rommel’s prize – Egypt.  However this left Tobruk, and the 2nd South African Division defending it isolated and highly vulnerable to Rommel’s advance.

The Fall of Tobruk;  It should have come as no surprise that the South African 2nd Division defending Tobruk would eventually be overtaken by Rommel’s rapid advance, the defences were in a poor state when the South Africans were tasked with defending it and they were ‘on their own’ without air support given the rapid withdrawal of British and Commonwealth forces from the Gazala line.  But this did not stop searing criticism from the British Command and especially Churchill who would go on to refer as South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk as a ‘disgrace’ and his ‘lowest moment’ in the war.  See “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

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General Erwin Rommel inspects South African and British POW after the fall of Tobruk

In a nutshell, Tobruk was the largest loss of arms in South African military history, Rommel ‘bagged’ 32,000 British and South African defenders, using a Axis force half the size of the defenders’ force and he took just one day to do it.  The Fall of Tobruk opened Rommel to the Suez and therefore left Britain’s war and her entire empire in the balance.  It also left the proud South African military command and fighting reputation in absolute shreds.

It would now be up to South Africa’s remaining division, the 1st SA Division, to recover South Africa’s pride – the opportunity would come in the Battle of El Alamein.

The 1st Battle of El Alamein

Having arrived back from the Gazala Line, the 1st South African division spent two weeks improving their defences at El Alamein in what was known as the “Alamein Box”.

The Battle of El Alamein would be fought over a simple railway siding on the Egyptian border, in the middle of ‘nowhere’. But it was more than a railway siding, it was the gateway to the Axis forces invasion of Egypt and of significant strategic importance, a loss at El Alamein for the British and Commonwealth forces would mean the loss of  what Churchill referred to as the ‘second front’ – in effect it would have been the end of the British and commonwealth forces in the war – the outcome and future of the war (with future American involvement) would have looked very different should El Alamein have been lost – a lot depended on winning it.

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A rare wartime original colour photo of El Alamein railway station, taken October1942. It looks somewhat dilapidated now.

For Hitler the invasion of Russia, now in full swing was more important, and the action in North Africa for the German ‘Afrika Korps’ had been to appease and assist their key ally – Italy and Mussolini’s African colonial ambitions and conquests.  Although of lessor importance the North African campaign drew key resources, equipment – planes, tanks and personnel as well as critical leadership away from the Russian campaign to deal with an ambition to take Egypt and the Suez Canal, knock Britain out the war completely and support Italy’s ambitions.  It was to a degree the ‘second front’ Hitler had wanted to avoid.

General Auchenlik – the British Commander of the 8th Army at the time then issued an order instructing all surplus personnel to be sent back to the Egyptian Delta for rest, re-supply and training, a moved which greatly displeased General Dan Pienaar.

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General Dan Pienaar

The 1st South African Division, under General Dan Pienaar had been deployed with two brigades of infantry, each accompanied by a battery of artillery to protect the areas west and south of the El Alamein defensive box. Auchinlecks order effectively meant that Pienaar could only hold the box with one under-strength brigade.

It did not take long for Rommel to advance on the El Alamein ‘Box’, At 06:05am on the 30 June 1942 Axis transports were seen advancing to within 2,000 yards of the South African 3rd Brigade positions and they were engaged with machine and anti-tank gun fire by British units.

The South Africans were soon in the fight alongside their British and Commonwealth counter-parts and the Rand Light Infantry drove off German towed artillery, whilst the South African Air Force bombed Rommel’s supply columns. An hour later, by 07:30am the Germans had been halted and were pinned down by the South Africans, determined to avenge Gazala and the surrender of Tobruk.

For three days, 30 June to 3 July Brigadier Bobby Palmer’s 3 SA Brigade Group courageously and successfully halted the Afrika Korps’ continuous attacks on the parts of the El-Alamein Box held by the South Africans.  He held a line some 10 km long with only 1 000 infantrymen.

Counter-attacks by the South Africans found them stretched into untenable positions and the British command resolved to remove the South Africans to the rear to rest them citing they had been under too much combat stress and should they capitulate, as had been the case with the 2nd SA Div at Tobruk, it would be a political nightmare.  Both South African Divisions in the war would have been captured and it would surely spell the end of South Africa’s war effort and the Smuts government.

The intension was to replace them with an Australian division, however General Pienaar would have none of it, he famously stated to an American war correspondent  “Here I stop, I’ve retreated far enough, whether we hold the damn thing or not!”

Mussolini had flown to a nearby enemy held airfield so as not to miss out on a triumphal Roman entry into Cairo. He had not anticipated a very defiant thin line of red-tabbed Springboks and other British and Commonwealth soldiers literally stopping him in his tracks.

The Axis advance had been stopped all along the Allied line of defence at El Alamein by the 27th July and a stalemate ensued giving the British time to make changes and prepare to go on the counter-attack, this was to be the upcoming decisive battle – the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.

A Change in British Command

Outraged by the conduct of the war in the Middle East, especially the loss on the Gazala line, the surrender of the Tobruk and the hasty ‘Gallop’ retreat,  Churchill headed off to Egypt in August 1942 to make some sweeping changes to British Command.  When adding the surrender of Singapore to the mix just previously to Tobruk, it was clear to Churchill that the British Empire needed to be saved and his direct intervention in command inevitable.

South Africa played a role in advising Churchill on changes to be made to Command and the entire strategy of the war going forward, in August 1942 General Smuts was requested to meet Churchill in Cairo, here they decided on a new war strategy.

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Winston Churchill with Jan Smuts at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

On the 5th August 1942, Winston Churchill even paid a surprise and informal visit to the South African Division. He remarked: ‘It is a long time since I was in South Africa.’  to a group of South Africans and one of the men humorously replied: ‘Yes Sir, you were in the bag then, weren’t you?’ (referring to Winston Churchill’s time spent as a Prisoner of War during the 2nd Anglo Boer War courtesy of the Boers).

General Auchenlik and his Eighth Army staff, were all given the boot (a little unfairly as Auchenlik had stabilised the Allied position after the First Battle of El Alamein). Churchill’s preferred replacement was initially not General Bernard Montgomery, he was Churchill’s second choice, General William Gott was appointed to head up the 8th Army.  Unfortunately General Gott was killed in action on 7 August 1942 when his aircraft was shot down.

General Montgomery was duly appointed to lead the 8th Army, and a decisive and very popular decision that proved to be (despite a terse relationship between Montgomery and Churchill – and notwithstanding that the two of them were polar opposite in character).

The 2nd Battle of El Alamein 

General ‘Monty’ Montgomery then set about on a massive troop and equipment build-up and extensive training and moral boosting speeches had the British forces ready.  He knew the first part of the offensive would require breaching a massive German/Italian mine-field which separated the two forces, he also knew that the headlong offensive was 1st World War in thinking, only with the use of an incredible amount of armour – as such ‘attrition’ (a battle of casualties by numbers) would play a major factor and Monty needed a vast force to overcome it.

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South African engineers training with mine detection equipment in North Africa. British and Commonwealth forces trained intensively in minefield clearance in preparation for the Second Battle of El Alamein.

In the interim South African engineers and sappers set themselves up training for the very large and very important mine clearing job to come.

Operation Lightfoot – Break-in

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Start Line Deployments for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein

The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role on the opening of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines – with a dab of military humour this part of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein was called ‘Operation Lightfoot’.  South African sappers were to play a significant role opening up the minefield to allow the Allied and South African forces to push through.

General Montgomery’s basic idea was that the Australians and Highlanders were to force a northern corridor through the Axis (German/Italian) minefields while the New Zealanders and South Africans were to do the same in the southern sector.

The 1st Infantry Division (South Africa), was tasked to attack on a two-brigade front to secure the southern end of Mieiriya Ridge. The Indian 4th and Northumbrian 50th Divisions were deployed to their south and to the north was the 2nd New Zealand Division.

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A 25-pdr gun firing during the British night artillery barrage which opened Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942.

The South Africans were to attack towards the south-west with 2nd SA Infantry Brigade (under the command of Brig. W.H.E. Poole) on the right and the 3rd SA Infantry Brigade (under the Command of Brig. R. Palmer) on the left. The 1st SA Infantry Brigade was deployed further south and was responsible for creating an anti-tank screen to protect the left flank of the South African attack.

Operation Lightfoot started at 2140 on 23rd October 1942 with a five-hour artillery barrage fire plan, the start of which signified H-Hour for the infantry assault.  General Pienaar had deployed each of the lead brigades, with on battalion leading for the first phase to the “red line”  – after a pause of an hour and a quarter, the two trailing battalions would pass though to the final objective on Miteiriya Ridge.

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Lucas Majozi DCM

The South African 1st and 2nd Field Force Brigades (FFB), as soon after the battle began, became pinned down in the German Axis forces minefield by intense German machine gun and artillery fire. The South African infantrymen suffered very severe casualties.

Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield.  Amongst these Black Native Military Corps (NMC) non-combatant medics rescuing their White combatant counterparts was Lucas Majozi who went on to win a DCM for gallantry. See “With bullets in his body he returned … into a veritable hell of machine gun fire”; Lucas Majozi DCM

By 08:00, the following morning on 24th October the South African objective, Miteiriya Ridge was finally secured, after a very long night of fighting and a very high rate of attrition by way of casualties.

The South African sacrifice in taking Miteiriya Ridge, spurred General Montgomery to send his now famous congratulatory signal on the 24th October 1942 to General Dan Pienaar acknowledging that the 1 SA Division had met all its objectives set for the Battle of Alamein.

Crumbling Operations

By the 25th October the Battle of El Alamein moved into the ‘crumbling actions/operations’ phase.  British Command on the 26th October ordered the South African 1st Division to “side-step” north and occupy the area initially held by the New Zealand Division and the 9th Armoured Brigade.

The South Africans were now stretched on a wider front, between the Australians and 51st Division in the north and the Indian 4th Division on Ruweisat Ridge, with 5th SA Brigade on the right, 3rd SA Brigade on its left and 1st SA Brigade being pulled back as the divisional reserve.

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El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle.

All in by the evening of 26 October (as from the H-Hour on the 23rd), the South Africans had suffered 600 casualties (the British had 2000 casualties as well as 1,000 Australians and 1000 New Zealanders).

Operation Supercharge – Break Out

By the 2nd November 1942, contrary to Hitler’s instructions – Rommel had started to withdraw. The final plan to destroy the Axis forces, code-named “Supercharge” was put into action. The 1st SA Division played no role in this phase of the operation – but the South African armoured cars attached to XXX Corps were actively involved in the attempted destruction and subsequent pursuit.

On the 4 November, after repeated attempts at breaking through the Axis lines – Lt-Col Reeves-Moore lead the South African armoured cars into the rear of the Axis positions, “….the eager children of any mechanized pursuit… scampered at dawn into the open desert beyond the mines and trenches and guns, to make their exuberant mischief amid the disintegrating enemy”.

They soon started causing the havoc for which they had been intended – A Sqn capturing two German 88 mm guns, two 105 mm guns, two 110mm guns, a Breda portee, six trucks and 130 prisoners; while B Sqn captured five trucks, a staff car, one 105 mm and one 150 mm gun and 100 prisoners within a matter of hours.

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A German Panzer III tank crewman surrenders to an advancing Allied soldier during the Battle of El Alamein, 1942

While the South African armoured cars were dashing west, the remaining elements of 1st South African Division had moved further north and over the previous two nights had relieved the 51st Highland Division 51st Highland Division.  During the night of 3/4 November, the last unit to move into its new position was the 1st Cape Town Highlanders who moved during a major artillery barrage in support of an attack by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. The regiment awoke on the 4th November to silence and the absence of gunfire, save for the sound of Allied vehicles advancing west in pursuit of the retreating enemy.

For the 1st South African Division, the war in North Africa had ended.

The loss of General Dan Pienaar

25626160_885298981647845_7204091414452226149_oThe Division returned to South Africa and General Pienaar and eleven other officers boarded a South African Air Force (SAAF) Lockheed Lodestar on 17 December to fly the final command structure back to South Africa.

The SAAF aircraft stopped to re-fuel at Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.  It was reputed that General Pienaar was in a hurry to get going and this may have pushed the pilot into taking risks, on takeoff on 19 December, the aircraft plunged into the lake, killing all on board.

With that came the sad ending of the very popular General Dan Pienaar, he was described in an obituary in the Chicago Tribune as being acknowledged by all military authorities as “one of the best fighting leaders the British have found in this war”.

The End of the Beginning

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa it was disbanded and the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British Command, still relatively unhappy with the Tobruk incident initially wanted to side-line the 6th South African Armoured Division and allocated it just to go to Palestine – in what was really a side-show – for the rest of the war.

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Memorial to South Africans at El Alamein Commonwealth Cemetery

At this point it is actually Churchill who comes around to bat for the South Africans, despite his anger and lambasting of the South Africa military establishment as a ‘disgrace’ over Tobruk, it is Churchill (influenced by Jan Smuts) who insisted that the South African 6th Armoured Division join the main thrust of the war in Italy and not sit it out in Palestine.

The 6th South African Armoured Division then went on to serve in Italy with great gallantry and distinction – taking with it the recovered country pride so hard for by the 1st South African Division at Tobruk, to an even higher accolade.

The Battle of El Alamein plays such a significant in the outcome of World War 2, Winston Churchill once remarked; “before Alamein, we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat” and more famously that Alamein marked the ‘end of the beginning‘ of World War 2.

In Conclusion

That South Africa played such a critical part in this pivot moment of history is often overlooked, it’s not something most South Africans are even aware of and it really is something which needs to be redressed by the time the centenary of this battle comes around.  Hopefully by this time it’s not confined to a couple of South African Legion branches and few MOTH shell-holes dotted around South Africa to remember it.

Lest we forget this Battle and path of sacrifice taken by some of the finest South Africans we have ever known, people to whom we as a nation owe a massive debt of gratitude.  Also, it really is not for politicians to remember the war dead, it really isn’t their job and given the nature of politics to ask them to do so is to dishonour both the sacrifice and the dead.  Let’s face it, the African National Congress (ANC) government are not up for it nor are they the proper people to do it in the first place (and to be honest nor were the old National Party government the right people either).

It is up to the veterans fraternity and each and every person that has served in a South African military uniform to carry this flame of remembrance on behalf of those who have come before them – as is the generally accepted practice in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  When we as South Africans veterans snap out of our collective apathy and get that part together, sharing in our most honoured history and stand in a unified cause in our thousands, only then will we get our remembrance occasions aligned and honour these men and women properly.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts and references taken from The Military History Journal, Vol 9 No 2 – December 1992 ‘GENERAL PIENAAR, TELL YOUR SOUTH AFRICAN DIVISION THEY HAVE DONE WELL’ – General Montgomery; 24 October 1942. By A B Theunissen.  Other references include The Imperial War Museum (with photo copyrights were shown), Wikipedia and a Biography of Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) By Beat Lenel.

 

‘Ride Safe’

Ride Safe“Christmas passes have been issued men and you need to organise a safe ride home. Here’s your reflective ‘Ride Safe’ band “Daar gat julle” (bugger off) … ”

Remember this – the ‘Ride Safe’ campaign? These Ride Safe signboards were posted all over South Africa at one stage so friendly motorists could pick up a “troepie” (troop or ‘troopie’ – English varient) hitching a ride home on ‘pass’ (leave).

The sign boards where distinctive showing the SADF ‘Castle’ emblem with a trooper and his ‘balsak’ (duffel bag) in the centre.

c0cdb806f57202285e560e8ca8863199‘Ride Safe’ was a national campaign instituted by The South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) and co-ordinated across all the various municipalities and the roads authority. It was designed to give a safe pick-up place for members of all the country’s armed services to stand and wait for motorists to stop for them and give them a lift.

It was a campaign which came about in an age when service in the SADF was part of South Africa’s socio-cultural make-up this was a very normative practice.

The campaign included relective orange bands sponsored by Sanlam so motorists could easily spot a servicemen day or night as an added safety measure.  Generally not enough of these bands were available and not everyone used them, but it was a great gesture and added safety measure.  Motorists also had ‘Ride Safe’ number stickers which showed their support of the program.

To think that at its height this system was the primary shuttle for literally thousands of national servicemen on any given weekend heading to all parts of the Republic of South Africa, near and far, remote rural towns and farms as well as the big cities.

On a point as to the intensity of the ‘struggle’ and threat it posed, on a weekend tens of thousands of troops would be hitching on the highways, the majority where unarmed (you had to leave your weapons safely stored in the base) and here’s the hidden truth – the vast majority of National Servicemen never felt under any sort of threat or in any form of danger by ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe (Mk) forces or any other ‘struggle’ forces for that matter – a softer and easier target than an unarmed and isolated soldier you could not get and it never really posed an issue.

Such was the degree of ‘low key’ resistance in South Africa during the critical Apartheid ‘struggle years’ when it came to confronting the SADF directly (the ‘sharp end of a military confrontation), that thousands of unarmed national servicemen and permanent force members could freely roam the country and stand on the national roads without any real worry, and nor was it a concern of the military establishment.  

In fact it was enthusiastically supported by the public at large, literally thousands of motorists and it was assisted by private corporate sponsorship, so much so it even became a media sensation and many will remember the ‘Ride Safe’ song by Matt Hurter (and here it is if you’re in need of a ‘blast from the past’).

Waiting in the middle of nowhere for the next lift was not unusual – and sometimes for troops who lived remotely the entire pass would be spent on the road trying to get home and the idea abandoned.  There is a rich tapestry of ‘Ride Safe’ stories told by many a veteran on the quest to get home and the characters they would meet along the way.

Many veterans will immediately understand this image of a signaller, Stuart Robertson on his way home in the middle of absolutely nowhere hitching a ride.

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Unfortunately by the late 80’s they became exploited by any hitch-hiker wanting a free lift, so motorists avoided the stop.  By 1990 the ANC had been unbanned and the country spiralled into a political dog-fight, so by this time it was also deemed dangerous as it placed troops in a vulnerable position as the unrest intensified between an array of different political factions trying to power grab during the CODESA negotiations.  In Afrikaans the campaign was called ” Ry Veilig” (ride safe) and by this stage national servicemen started to sarcastically call it “Ry Verby” (ride past).

By 1994 the ‘Ride Safe’ program and national service conscription was all but gone.  Still – the good old days in South Africa when it was safe for national servicemen to hitch rides and safe to pick up a hitch hiker, especially when you did your bit for the country and gave a happy ‘troepie’ a ride home to his much-loved and missed family for Christmas.


Written by Peter Dickens. Copyright and thanks to Stuart Robertson for this great memory, the “Ride Safe’ song copyright Matt Hurter and Gallo Records.

 

Kak vraag sit

By Steve De Witt

“Decades ago we came barreling around a corner in Onjiva and drove into a T-34 tank. We were just a SAI section in a Buffel. This was a seriously unequal encounter. Like when Bismarck concussed himself bouncing off Eben Etzebeth.

You get two kinds of leopards, Oom Schalk Lourens said, one with more spots and one with fewer spots. But when you come across a leopard in the bush you only do one kind of running. And that’s the fastest kind.

The same applies to a T-34 tank. If you’re in a Ratel I guess it’s different. I hear they knocked out quite a few T-34s. If you’re an NSM BokKop in a Buffel, there’s nothing you learnt in bush-alley shooting that can help you.

You become acutely aware of your shortcomings when facing a Russian tank. A bunch of R4’s, an LMG and a shotgun don’t get you far. I suppose we could’ve used our pikstel knives as well but this wasn’t the time to check inventory.

They said don’t volunteer for anything in the army but in that moment your body commits treason against you. Your anus volunteers to open right there and then in the Buffel.

That’s a secondary and unimportant reaction. Your first response is to scream at the driver to Reverse! All of you, screaming the same thing simultaneously.

At the same time you duck down behind the steel plating. A T-34 cannon is pretty intimidating when you’re facing it from the front. And when it’s job is to erase you from the planet.

Not that ducking down helps much. There’s also that little round bubble on the T-34 with a short barrel poking out. You don’t know if it’s a 7.62 or a 20mm or even a 30mm cannon. Whatever, you suspect it can fire big chunks of Siberian lead right through your Buffel.

Christo, our driver, was now under severe pressure. He had a bunch of screaming, sh*tting maniacs behind him and a Russian tank in front.

Pressure wasn’t Christo’s thing. He was everyone’s buddy but had cracked in Basics. They were chasing us around with bed frames at 1am when Christo gave in. Sat down, lit a cigarette and told the Instructors to f-off. THAT was something to witness. Another story for another day.

Point is, he couldn’t take the punch, they said. Let’s keep him away from contacts. Make him a driver. So much for that theory. But now Christo had the chance to redeem himself. Pretty easy, you might think. Just hit reverse gear and back up around the corner.

Maybe his hesitation was influenced by 10 infantryman and a sergeant yelling at him in 3 languages – English, Afrikaans and NuweVloekerei. The last is when you spontaneously construct sentences consisting only of swear words. Bad ones that make you cry when confessing to the Dominee. He also cries.

Some of the swear words are old, the stock ones in your vocabulary. When they don’t work and Christo is grinding the gears trying to find Reverse, you spontaneously invent new words. These involve a combination of the driver’s, your own and everyone else’s mother, including the T-34’s.

The amazing thing is that this new language works. Christo hammered us into Reverse, popped the clutch and we shot backwards faster than a T-34 projectile goes forwards.

Straight into a line of Buffels behind us that veered left and right to avoid a crash. This caused Onjiva’s biggest traffic snarl-up since Antonio the Porto arrived with fresh veggies from Lubango.

On top of the skidding and sliding Buffels a company of BokKops jumped up shouting What’s Your <NuweVloekerei> Problem!?

Kak vraag sit. Go round the corner and see for yourself.

… So last month I walked around London’s Imperial War Museum looking at nice war things like Spitfires and bent steel girders from the World Trade Centre and suicide bomber vests and stuff. Relics from other people’s wars.

Then you walk around a corner straight into the barrel of a T-34 tank. Deja vu. Instinctively I ducked and shouted out the same NuweVloekerei I’d used many years ago. I didn’t know those words were still in my vocabulary.

A museum guide smiled and helped me off the floor. He told me the tank fought at Stalingrad where they defeated the Nazi Panzers. I told him I know this tank. And asked him to take the picture.

We don’t get many visitors who fought against a T-34, he said. I had to correct him. You don’t get many visitors who ran away from a T-34, I said.”

Written by Steve De Witt and published on The Observation Post with his kind permission.

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Editor – Sometimes we get a gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border, thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post.  Copyright  – Steve De Witt.

“She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

As Simonstown was a British naval base during the Second World War thousands of naval ratings and officers who volunteered to serve in the South African Navy – known as the South African Navy Forces – landed up serving on British vessels in addition to South African ones. So when a British ship was sunk, as HMS Hollyhock was, inevitably there is a honour roll of South Africans lost with her. Read on for their story.

HMS Hollyhock short history

HMS Hollyhock was commissioned on 19th August, 1940 and finished on November 19 1940. The Hollyhock was a Flower Class Corvette.  She originally served as escort protection in the Atlantic as part of EG3 (3rd Escort Group) Western Approaches Command Fleet.

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HMS Hollyhock in Cape Town, South Africa

Between 11th & 16th November 1941, HMS Hollyhock escorted convoy ST8 to Takoradi, she then returned to Freetown between 17th & 22nd November. On the 27th, she left Freetown escorting a large troop convoy to Simonstown along with HMS Royal Sovereign. While she was in Simonstown, she had some defects rectified, and had a boiler clean.

It was at this time (7th December 1941) that Japan entered the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the US State of Hawaii. This caused many problems and changes, one of which was the transfer of HMS Hollyhock to the Eastern Fleet (East Indies Fleet) to bolster the fleet against Japanese aggression and expansion.

She took on South African Navy volunteers as additional crew and sailed out of Simonstown on February 4th bound for Durban 3 days later. Later that evening (8th Feb) she set sail to escort convoy SU1, refuelling at Mauritius and finally reached Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on 28th Feb 1942.

The Easter Sunday Raid

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette, our feature today, the HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo (the commercial capital of modern-day Sri Lanka).

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,

However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April 1942 they did manage to achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance (another parallel with the attack on Peal Harbour).

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships.

DorsetshireCornwall

Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

On 9 April, the Japanese focussed their attack on the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The HMS Hermes left the Royal Naval Base of Trincomalee, Ceylon escorted by the Australian Destroyer HMAS Vampire (on loan to the Royal Navy), and along with the HMS Hollyhock they were tasked with protecting merchant fleet tankers.

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, this British flotilla was also attacked by the Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force now in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes on the 9 April 1942, and the HMS Hermes sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs and became a blazing inferno.  To read more detail about the account and South African sacrifice on the Hermes – follow this Observation Post link: “Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

After the Japanese aircraft broke off the attack on the HMS Hermes, those aboard the Hermes’ escort, the Australian ship HMSAS Vampire, thought they had been spared. However, the aircraft had returned to the carriers to rearm, and on their return bombed the destroyer heavily. HMAS Vampire shot down at least one aircraft before breaking in half and sinking. Despite the ferocity of the attack, Vampires commanding officer and eight sailors were the only fatalities.

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HMAS Vampire

The Sinking of HMS Hollyhock

The HMS Hollyhock was about 7 nautical miles from the HMS Hermes escorting a tanker, the RFA Athelstane when the Hermes came under attack by a formation of about Twenty Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers. The Hollyhock came under attack by the same group of Japanese aircraft.

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Just past midday, the tanker the Hollyhock was escorting, the RFA Athelstane was dive bombed by 5 Japanese aircraft, each dropping one bomb. The tanker ship was hit several times and disabled and the crew abandoned ship.

At the same time an attack by Japanese dive bombers commenced on HMS Hollyhock, the first bomb exploded on the starboard side about 25 feet from the Hollyhock bursting  side fuel tanks and putting the number 2 Boiler out of action.

The second bomb exploded 30-40 yards from starboard side of ship between the bridge and the Hollyhock’s 2 pounder gun.  The HMS Hollyhock then started to close on RFA Athelstane to come to its assistance.

15 minutes later, a Japanese dive bomber dropped a third bomb on the Hollyhock which exploded on Engine room casing, disabling the Pom-pom gun, engines and steering gear.

Barely a minute later a fourth bomb dropped on the Hollyhock then burst amidships, and his sealed the fate of the ship as it hit her Magazine and boilers causing a massive explosion. The whole ship blew apart and disintegrated, sinking within just 30-40 seconds.

This attack and sudden massive explosion which sank the Hollyhock is best described by Captain Moore of the RFA Athelstane, who had survived the attack on his own ship and witnessed the attack on the Hollyhock, he simply remarked that attack on both their ships had lasted about 5 minutes and the final bomb to hit the Hollyhock probably hit her magazine and she “immediately blew up, disintegrating, and sank”.

Given the ferocity of the final moments of the Hollyhock it is a sheer miracle that there were any survivors at all, however of the ships compliment a lucky few, 14 men in all survived.  The rest of the ships personnel, 49 souls in total were lost, including 5 South African Naval Force volunteers.

Controversy
 on the sinking of HMS Hollyhock

Noted in the accounts is lack of adequate Anti Aircraft firepower on the HMS Hollyhock to defend herself from an air attack.  In fact the ships main complement of Anti-Aircraft  guns were removed from Hollyhock and transferred to the Aster prior to her leaving Colombo’s port.  This was noted in the Eastern Fleet War Diary, simply put the HMS Hollyhock was at sea without her full armament, and stood virtually no chance at all from a concentrated air attack – which unfortunately proved to be the case.

HMS Hollyhock – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll


22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nANDERSON, Henry G, Able Seaman, 67501 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)
  • The son of Wallace H. and Susan C. Anderson, of Port Elizabeth, Cape Province, South Africa; husband of Edith Anderson. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

BASTON, Douglas T, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68600 (SANF), MP (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of William A. and Elizabeth Baston. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

BUITENDACH, James M, Stoker 2c, 69223 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of Jacob E. and Dorothea M. Buitendach, Durban, Natal. South Africa. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

JUBY, Kenneth J, Ordinary Seaman, 69211 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of Mr. and Mrs. H. W. B. Juby, of Germiston, Transvaal, South Africa. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

LEACH, Peter A D H, Stoker 2c, 69225 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of Harold and Louisa M. A. D. H. Leach. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

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May their sacrifice never be forgotten.

Take the time to watch this short video on the history and discovery of what is believed to be the wreck of the HMS Hollyhock compiled by ‘Dive Sri Lanka’ at a site 42 meters deep.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary Reference: On line website, video and images to commemorate Alfred John Wickett, 24, who died on 9th April, 1942, when the Flower Class Corvette HMS Hollyhock was attacked and sunk by Japanese dive bombers when on active service in the Indian Ocean.

“Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

This is the 10,850 ton Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes under fire, ablaze and sinking during World War 2. As Simonstown in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy as well as in the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The loss of an aircraft carrier the size of the HMS Hermes is bound to include a South African honour roll and unfortunately this one does. Read on for their story.

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HMS Hermes’ short history

The HMS Hermes was the first purpose-built aircraft carrier in the world. The design was based on that of a cruiser and the ship was intended for a similar scouting role. She was built by Armstrong Whitworth and launched 11 September 1919.

After a distinguished wartime career she was lost 9 April 1942. HMS Hermes had a small aircraft complement, light protection and anti-aircraft armament. She had a limited high-speed endurance and stability problems caused by the large starboard island, with fuel having to be carefully distributed to balance the ship.

HMS Hermes was deemed unsuitable for operations in European waters, and was consequently employed in trade protection in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans until March 1942.

HMS Hermes in South Africa

In June 1941, the HMS Hermes took passage to South Africa, where she undertook repairs from July to October in HM Dockyard Simonstown.  By November she was ready to re-rejoin the action as part of convoy defence in Indian Ocean.  She took on a large contingent of South African Naval Forces personnel seconded to The Royal Navy’s requirements as part of her crew.  The HMS Hermes then sailed from Cape Town accompanied by the Battleship HMS Prince of Wales on passage up the Indian Ocean.

CVHermes1936

In December 1941 she undergoes more refitting, again in South Africa, this time in Durban.   By February 1942, she leaves Durban (with more South African personnel) and resumes convoy defence duties in the Indian Ocean.

By March she joins the Eastern Fleet searching for Japanese warships in Indian Ocean to engage.

Japanese attack on Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

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HMS Hermes on patrol with HMS Dorsetshire – 1942

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo.

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,  However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance.

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Japanese Carrier Hiryu

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships.

On 9 April, the Japanese focussed their attack on the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The HMS Hermes left the Royal Naval Base of Trincomalee, Ceylon escorted by the Australian Destroyer HMAS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock looking to engage the Imperial Japanese fleet which had attacked Colombo.

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, this British flotilla was also attacked by the Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force now in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Zero_Akagi_Dec1941

Admiral Nagumo’s fleet unleashed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters and bombers on the attack on Colombo on 5 April 1942.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes which sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs. HMAS Vampire was also sunk by bombs a short while later.

The HMS Hollyhock was about 7 nautical miles from the HMS Hermes escorting a tanker, the RFA Athelstane when the Hermes came under attack.  The Hollyhock came under attack by the same Japanese aircraft and it too was bombed and sunk.  For an in-depth appraisal on the South Africans lost on the Hollyhock follow this Observation Post link: “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

“Dante’s Inferno”

An eyewitness account of the sinking by Stan Curtiss says everything about the trauma and personal drama experienced by the sailors and officers:

“The AA guns crews did a magnificent job and to assist them because the planes at the end of their dive flew along the flight deck to drop their bombs and because the guns could not be fired at that low angle, all the 5.5.`s, mine included had orders to elevate to the maximum so that as the ship slewed from side to side to fire at will hoping that the shrapnel from the shells would cause some damage to the never ending stream of bombers that were hurtling down out of the sun to tear the guts out of my ship that had been my home for the past 3 years.

hermes 4Suddenly there was an almighty explosion that seemed to lift us out of the water, the after magazine had gone up, then another, this time above us on the starboard side, from that moment onwards we had no further communication with the bridge which had received a direct hit, as a result of that our Captain and all bridge personnel were killed.

Only about fifteen minutes had passed since the start of the action and the ship was already listing to port, fires were raging in the hanger, she was on fire from stem to stern, just aft of my gun position was the galley, that received a direct hit also, minutes later we had a near miss alongside our gun, talk about a tidal wave coming aboard, our crew were flung yards, tossed like corks on a pond. Picking myself up and finding no bones broken, I called out to each number of our crew and got an answer from all of them (no-one washed overboard), we were lucky; our gun was the only one that did not get hit.

At this stage Hermes had a very heavy list to port and it was obvious that she was about to sink. As the sea was now only feet below our gun deck I gave the order “over the side lads, every man for himself, good luck to you all”.

Abandon ship had previously been given by word of mouth, the lads went over the side and I followed, hitting the water at 11.00 hours, this is the time my wristwatch stopped (I didn’t have a waterproof one).

As she was sinking the Japs were still dropping bombs on her and machine gunning the lads in the water. In the water I swam away from the ship as fast as I could, the ship still had way on and I wanted to get clear of the screws and also because bombs were still exploding close to the ship, the force of the explosions would rupture your stomach, quite a few of the lads were lost in this way after surviving Dante’s Inferno aboard, so it was head down and away”.

The aftermath 

In all, 19 officers and 283 ratings (including 1 South African Officer and 17 South African Ratings) were Reported Missing in Action when HMS Hermes went down. 9 Ratings on HMAS Vampire were lost.  53 of the ship’s company of HMS Hollyhock were lost, of which 5 were members of the South African Naval Forces.

The hospital ship Vita rescued approximately 600 survivors and transferred them back to Colombo and later to Kandy for recuperation.

The air attack on the Royal Naval Base at Trincomalee killed 85 civilians in addition to the military losses while 36 Japanese aircraft were shot down during the attack.

The wreck of the HMS Hermes was re-discovered in 2006 approximately five nautical miles from shore, lying at a depth of fifty-seven meters. Divers attached the White Ensign to the rusting hull.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nSouth African casualties aboard HMS Hermes

BRIGGS, Anthony Herbert Lindsay Sub-Lieutenant (Engineer) Royal Navy (South African national), MPK
BRYSON, Neil W, Ordinary Telegraphist, 69147 (SANF), MPK
BURNIE, Ian A, Able Seaman, 67786 (SANF), MPK
CLAYTON, Frederick H, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68102 (SANF), MPK
DE CASTRO, Alfred T, Stoker 1c, 67914 (SANF), MPK
KEENEY, Frederick W, Able Seaman, 67748 (SANF), MPK
KEYTEL, Roy, Able Seaman, 67296 (SANF), MPK
KIMBLE, Dennis C, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 67600 (SANF), MPK
KRAUSE, Frederick E, Able Seaman, 68321 (SANF), MPK
RAPHAEL, Philip R, Able Seaman, 67841 (SANF), MPK
RICHARDSON, Ronald P, Able Seaman, 67494 (SANF), MPK
RILEY. Harry Air Mechanic 2nd Class, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Navy (South African national), MPK
TOMS, Ivanhoe S, Able Seaman, 67709 (SANF), MPK
VICKERS, Colin P, Able Seaman, 68296 (SANF), MPK
VORSTER, Jack P, Able Seaman, 67755 (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Edward G, Stoker, 68026 (SANF), MPK
WIBLIN, Eric R, Able Seaman, 67717 (SANF), MPK
YATES, Philip R, Supply Assistant, 67570 (SANF), MPK

Their names have not been forgotten.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference thanks to Graham Du Toit, other references and extracts taken from Wikipedia, Service Histories of Royal Navy Ships in World War 2 by Cdr Geoffrey B Mason RN (Retired). Image copyright Imperial War Museum and the Australian War Memorial.