The Household Division are very well-known for the spectacular marches they perform, in their distinctive red tunics and black bearskins, with ceremonies ranging from a daily Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to the annual Trooping of the Colour at the Horse Guards parade ground. However, for all the pomp and ceremony, the Household Division is actually a combat ready fighting division in the British Army and it has a very long list of Battle Honours, including ones shared with South African fighting units, and here a very special relationship has existed between ‘The Guards’ and South Africa.
The origin of The Changing of the Guard dates back several centuries, since 1660, Household Troops have guarded the monarch and the Royal Palaces. The Guard at Buckingham Palace is usually carried out by one of the five Foot Guards Regiments of the Household Division – the Grenadier, Coldstream, Welsh, Irish & Scots Guards. (They are identified by the number of buttons on their tunics and the plume in their bearskin head-dress). The mounted cavalry of the Household Division comprises the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals.
However, at certain times the honour of guarding Buckingham Palace is given to regiments and units of the Commonwealth forces, and that certainly is also the case with South Africa. Here members of the South African Coronation Contingent of 1937 take over guard duty at Buckingham Palace from 1 Bn Welsh Guards.
Yes, South Africans have had the honour of Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, however the history of the Household Division and South Africa has not just been a ceremonial one, a long history exists between The Guards and South African fighting units and it unveils a largely forgotten but very special relationship, where even some current South African military insignia carries with it Household Division accolade and honour.
So how did this unique history and relationship between the Household Division and South African Regiments and units come about, like many British regimental relationships with South African ones, this relationship starts with the Boer War.
The Boer War
The Household Cavalry Composite Regiment was the first unit to be sent to South Africa and served with the 2nd Cavalry Division throughout the first phase of the Boer War campaign (the ‘conventional’ phase). The 1st Guards Brigade consisting of the 3 Bn Grenadier Guards, 1 Bn Coldstream Guards, 2 Bn Coldstream Guards, and 1 Bn Scots Guards, also joined the force sent to relieve the siege of Kimberley. The Brigade took part in various battles in the northern Cape Colony to relieve Kimberley, leading up to Black Week 10-16 December 1899 – where the Boers gained the upper hand and the British suffered a number of humiliating defeats.
Life Guards during The Boer War
Following the ‘Black week’ disasters, more Guards were sent to South Africa to boost their numbers, two additional Guards battalions in fact, 2 Bn Grenadier Guards and 2 Bn Scots Guards.
As the war progressed, the two Boer republics were annexed by the British, and the Boer commandos reverted to guerrilla warfare tactics in a new second phase. To combat the ‘hit and run’ tactics of guerrilla war, the British then established blockhouses across the country to restrict the movement of the Boer guerillas. Mobile units were created to protect the forts and chase down the Boer Commandos. These included two Guards’ mounted infantry companies comprising recruits from all four regiments of the Foot Guards at the time.
Grenadier Guards at Magersfontein during the Boer War
After the end of the 2nd Anglo Boer War, May 1902, the Guards, both Cavalry and Foot, returned to the United Kingdom.
The Irish Guards has South African roots
The Sovereign’s fourth regiment of Foot Guards, the Irish Guards, owes its establishment to the actions of various Irish regiments in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. During ‘Black Week’, when the British experienced set-backs at the battles of Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso and Spionkop, the only comfort the British people could derive from these early disasters was that the soldiers had served gallantly and specifically the Irish regiments, especially at the Battle of Spionkop.
In an expression of appreciation for the bravery of the Irish Regiments in South Africa, on 1 March 1900, a letter to the editor appeared in the Sunday Times from Summing Macdona suggesting that the same honour be given them as was the case with English and Scottish Foot “ There are Scotch Guards and English Guards – why not add to the roll of glory a regiment of Irish Guards?”
Queen Victoria approved the proposal and on 1 April 1900, Army Order No 77 was issued: ‘Her Majesty the Queen having deemed it desirable to commemorate the bravery shown by the Irish Regiments during the operations in South Africa in the years 1899-1900 has been graciously pleased that an Irish Regiment of Foot Guards be formed to be designated the Irish Guards.’
General Poole and the Guards
After the Boer War, several South Africans either served with or were seconded to a Guards regiment. One significant South African officer of the South African Union Defence Force to do this was Maj. General William Henry Everard Poole. General Poole led the 6th South African Armoured Division during World War 2 in Italy.
General Poole and Jan Smuts
In 1935, as a temporary lieutenant-colonel and after a period as the Officer Commanding the Special Service Battalion in South Africa, Poole was sent to the United Kingdom, and attached to the Brigade of Guards. He spent time with three Guards battalions: 2 Bn Grenadier Guards, 1 Bn Scots Guards and 1 Bn Welsh Guards. Whilst serving with the Grenadier Guards, he took part in the Royal Review of the British Army by King George V and was presented to the King.
Poole’s experience with the Guards was to be cemented in the coming of World War 2, where an important association was to be formed, and detachments of Guards were to find themselves under South African command.
The Second World War – North Africa
During the June 1942 crisis in North Africa the South Africans and the Guards were rather unexpectedly thrown together. When the British Eighth Army withdrew from the Gazala line, only the Tobruk garrison lay in the path of Rommel’s the advancing Axis forces.
The Garrison at Tobruk was hastily put together and the defences were inadequate, however the task of defending it was put to the 2nd South African Division under the command of Maj Gen H B Klopper, under his command were also a handful of British and Indian brigades, including the 201st Guards Brigade, the main component of which were the Coldstream Guards.
Rommel quickly encircled the garrison at Tobruk and attacked from the weakest point – from the east. Tobruk fell and the South African 2nd Division were forced to surrender on 21 June 1942, however some 400 Guardsmen managed to escape capture and make it back to Allied lines.
Rommel inspecting South African and British POW at Tobruk
WW2 Italy – 24th Guards Brigade and the 6th South African Armoured Division
When the North Africa campaign ended in 1943, the Allied High Command took the decision to invade Italy, then ally of Nazi Germany in the Axis Pact. The 6th South Africa Armoured Division was eventually earmarked for service in Italy at the insistence of Smuts and Churchill. The Division comprised one armoured and one motorised infantry brigade, however due to the mountainous terrain of Italy it was necessary to add an additional infantry component to the Division, this fell to the British 24th Guards Brigade, comprising 5 Bn Grenadier Guards, 3 Bn Coldstream Guards and 1 Bn Scots Guards, all of whom were allocated to the 6th South African Armoured Division under South African command on 20 May 1944.
For nine months this close association existed between the Guards and the South Africans. Whilst under South African command, this association was described by Capt the Hon D H Erskine, the official historian of the Scots Guards, as ‘ … the happiest of the campaign – if not the whole war’.
The success of the association can be directly attributed the General Officer Commanding the 6th South African Armoured Division, Maj General William Poole, who had (as previously noted) been attached to the Guards in the inter-war years. In some senses it also ‘qualified’ him for command in the eyes of the Guardsmen, who by tradition had always been commanded by a Guardsman (this was the first time a ‘foreigner’ had commanded The Guards).
The British Guard Brigade fought with the South African Armoured Division until 17 February 1945. During that time, the high regard in which the 6th SA Armoured Division was held was manifested by the Guards in different ways. The regimental history of the Coldstream Guards records that ‘ … it was a marked breach of tradition for the men of the 3rd Battalion to wear a divisional sign, used as they were to sport only a Roman III on their sleeves; but even the most conservative was proud to wear on his battledress the green and yellow triangle of the 6th SA Armoured Division’.
3rd BN Coldstream Guards with 6th SA Armoured Division triangular flash
One Guardsman even felt it necessary to express his feelings for the Springboks in the following letter published in Division’s magazine, The Sable:
‘Hello Springboks! Somebody ought to tell you about yourselves, so why not I? !t’s a pleasure. I like you. Nobody with a red tab on his shoulders has told me yet how big the skyscrapers are in Cape Town and I haven’t heard yet that you are winning the war for us. You grouse as much as I do, and about the same things, but it’s always a private grouse and you keep it in the family. When we first got together, you knew us – mind you, we’ve been in British divisions who couldn’t tell one guardsman from another.
British troops generally are never unanimous in their opinions of anything or anybody – of course with the agreed exceptions but I’ve yet to hear any guardsman who doesn’t want to stay in “Our Div”. There’s a general satisfaction with the news that the flash is now on our vehicles, and that’s significant.
Yes, we’ve never been out of sound of your tracks and wheels since we came among you. Where a Sherman has not got to go, has been due to mechanical impossibility and you’ve proved it by trial. This may not be sound brasshat economics but it’s very convincing to the footslogger. Even if it means a tank out of commission, he knows you had a damn good try, and although I wish every mother’s son of you a speedy return to the kopjes and kloofs of sunny SA, I hope you’ll see the Guards Bde through these deadly hills first! – I’ll trek along with you.’
Coldstream Guards attached to the SA Armoured Div advancing in Italy
Members of the Coldstream Guards after battle for Monte Sole on the 15 December 1944. These tired and exhausted members of the Coldstream Guards were attached to the 6th South African Armoured Division, as they reach La Quercia on their way back to the rear for a few days rest. These men fought several days taking, losing and retaking a hill just under Monte Sole, South of Bologna on Route 6620.
24th Guards Brigade winged badge
The Pretoria Regiment was the most closely associated South African Regiment with the Guards, as it was the Pretoria Regiment who provided much of the armoured support for the 24th Guards Brigade. (see Observation Post Pretoria Regiment Sherman tanks in Italy – Operation Olive)
At the farewell parade held on 26 March 1945, the Pretoria Regiment was permitted to wear the winged blue-red-blue flash of the Household Division, and it is still worn today behind their headdress badge.
The significance of the wings is that, on several occasions, the Regiment had managed to get their tanks supporting the Guardsmen into such inaccessible positions in the mountains that it was remarked that ‘ … they must have flown there.’ In appreciation, the Pretoria Regiment presented each of the Brigade’s battalions with a mounted impala head, the emblem of the Regiment.
Pretoria Regiment with Guards Colours and wings behind their beret badge
At the same parade, the 24th Guards Brigade provided the 6th SA Armoured Division with 9 company colour of 5 Bn Grenadier Guards and the commanding officer’s flags of 3 Bn Coldstream Guards and 1 Bn Scots Guards.
These flags and colour can be seen in the display featuring the 6th South African Armoured Division at the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
The Guards Chapel’s South African Association
On 18 June 1944 the Guards Chapel, located in Wellington Barracks in London, was hit by a V1 flying bomb. The bomb hit the chapel during a Sunday morning service and 121 people were killed. Much of the building was destroyed. As a token of their regard for the Guardsmen, the men of the 6th SA Armoured Division contributed £5 000 towards rebuilding the Chapel.
This gesture aroused the deepest feelings of gratitude throughout the Brigade of Guards.’ The gift was used to purchase new bronze doors for the main entrance of the Chapel and to renovate the mosaics in the apse. Today the bronze doors carry both the star of the Household Division and the green and gold flash of the 6th South African Armoured Division.
Unfortunately this strong association between South Africa and the Household Division has deteriorated somewhat. It started when the Nationalist Party Government came to power in 1948 with its proposals of Apartheid and its abject hatred of anything British (fuelled by deep seated Afrikaner resentment of British actions in the Boer War). To this end they re-established the Union Defence Force as the South African Defence Force when they withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, ‘British’ associations to South African regiments were either removed or reduced in the case of some Regiments to a more token association – either in insignia, name or relationship ties.
Much of this association was further lost in South Africa’s isolation years. To a degree some of these relationships were re-kindled post 1994, with South African Regiments invited to and attending key ceremonies and parades in the United Kingdom. However they remain relatively low key as the now re-configured South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has focussed its priorities on African issues only and gone even further to strip any ‘Colonial’ references from South African Regiments. New proposals have now been accepted to change or remove much of this association from the SANDF Reserve Regiments.
It is hoped that in all the political transformation of the SANDF, that the traditions and hard-fought for battle honours won by South African units with the Household Division, which were brushed aside by the Apartheid regime, are now properly rekindled and maintained.
However it is very unlikely at this stage given the current ‘transformation’ trajectory, and it is not a sentiment held by the British, who remain keen on heritage and have maintained it for Australian and Canadian Regiments associated with the Guards, but the will to reassert these links has to come from the South African military and political establishment themselves or they will forever be lost to modern South Africans.
Researched by Peter Dickens. References – Coldstream Guards in Italy = Photo by Baker. 3131 Signal Service Co.Â” Near Madonna della Quercia, Italy. 15 December 1944. Photo copyright of Guards and Pretoria Regiment SANMMH copyright.
Key extracts and photos taken from the Military History Journal, Vol 13, Number 1, June 2004 written by Allan Sinclair of the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg