South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922

The narrative that many South Africans understand of The Rand Revolt today is one linked to Jan Smuts, sending tanks and aeroplanes to brutally repress a miners strike murdering his own kind – white South Africans, and it is a narrative his opposition, the National Party, used repeatedly to criticise Smuts for political expediency for decades.

The Nationalists went further, as during the Apartheid period Smuts was painted as traitor to his own ‘Volk’ (people) partly because of the actions he took to quell this ‘miners strike’ and adding to this was the example of Jopie Fourie and the ‘1914 Afrikaner Revolt,’ both of which proved beyond doubt Smuts’ betrayal and brutality to his own kind, certainly according to the Nationalists.

However, like any history derived for political expediency, much of this above narrative is very incorrect.  The truth is the Rand Revolt was much more than a simple miners strike and a deep irony sits behind the old Nationalists claims of Smuts’ betrayal – as the nationalists had found sympathy using their traditional enemies – the Communists – in order to gain political points. It is the strangest of bedfellows on which to press a criticism.  The truth is The Rand Revolt was South Africa’s first ‘Communist Revolution’ and the rebels (not just strikers) were not Afrikaner Boere ‘Volk’, they were, for the most part, led by a bunch of very militant English Communists with origins in Great Britain.

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These Communist miners were joined by the ‘Syndicalists’ in their upcoming fight to overthrow the South African Union government, the Syndicalists were a similar organisation to the Communists as they held the same view – that an economic system should exist where the worker ‘syndicate’ owns the mine, not the capitalist.

These miners were in fact the same miners who provided the British with the trigger to start the Boer War, the same ‘British’ miners who repeatedly protested for their workers rights to the old Transvaal Government, and even then Paul Kruger sent in his infamous ‘ZAR’ Policemen to baton and break up these miners’ strikes and protests on the Rand.

They were also the rational behind the Jameson Raid.  Jameson and his consorts on the mines in Johannesburg planned the raid ostensibly to liberate these miners from Transvaal government oppression (coupled of course with Rhodes’ ideals of imperial expansionism).   This time the Jameson ‘revolt’ and miners uprising was universally crushed by the Transvaal government (The old South African Republic) who sent in their military Commandos to put an end to it.

The white miners on the Rand and their issues, which almost universally revolved  around citizen and worker rights, were a constant thorn in both Boer Republics, they were the reason behind the destruction of the Boer nation by Britain in the 2nd Anglo Boer war, friends of the Afrikaner ‘Boer’ population they were not.

So now that we have dispelled the first miss-truth, let’s have a look at what this revolt was really all about and ask ourselves if Smuts had any alternative to the course he took. Also lets hypothetically challenge whether the Rand Revolt of 1922 would have been handled any differently by the old Transvaal government (should the Boer War not have happened) and the Nationalist government (should they have been in power at the time of the revolt instead of Smuts).

Origins of a Communist Rebellion in South Africa

Emblem_of_the_South_African_Communist_PartyThe Rand Rebellion (also known as the Rand Revolt or Second Rand Revolt – the Jameson Raid was the first) was an armed uprising of white miners on the Witwatersrand mining belt in March 1922.

The trigger was a drop in the world price of gold from 130 shillings (£6 10s) a fine troy ounce in 1919 to 95s/oz (£4 15s) in December 1921, the companies tried to cut their operating costs by decreasing wages, and by weakening the colour bar to enable the promotion of cheaper black miners to skilled and supervisory positions.

This in turn triggered a strike action led by the South African Communist Party which very quickly turned into an open armed rebellion against the state.  The Communist Party in South Africa in fact took a very proactive role in transcending a simple strike to an open armed revolt, they based their argument on the ‘class struggle’ premise and sought to follow the lead of the Russian Communist workers revolution in 1917 which saw the overthrow of the Tzar by the Bolsheviks and the establishment of Soviet Russia.

Consider that by 1922 this revolution in Russia had only occurred 5 years perviously.  Buoyed by the success of the Russian communists, the South African Communists hoped that their action in Africa would force regime change in the Transvaal and furthermore inspire more Communist overthrows of state by other worker colonies in far-flung countries like Australia and India.

Consider the summary of the Revolt given by David Ivon Jones – a mine-union communist and you’ll see the point:

The Rand Revolt was ‘the deed of indictment against capitalism [which was] filling up from every land and every clime; and the roll of honour of proletarian heroism [was] growing from Africa, Australia and India . . . ‘

The South African Communist Party’s racist beginnings

However, contrary to current views of The South African Communist Party (SACP), the SACP has as its origin an ‘Apartheid’ beginning, it was initially not the party for Black Africans, in fact by the time of the Rand Revolt it had a pretty strong ‘whites only’ philosophy underpinning it.

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‘Comrade Bill’ Andrews

It was founded by William (Bill) Henry Andrews who became the first Chairman of the SACP.  Bill Andrews was born in England and by 1890 he had travelled to South Africa to work on the mines, here he became a predominant trade union organiser.

A fighter for the rights of ″white″ labour, Bill Andrews was always quick to complain when he perceived that an African (whom he openly called ″Kaffirs″) might take away a job from a white man.

By 1922 Bill Andrews was the first General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, and as a result the SACP approached the Rand Rebellion as a fight for white worker rights and white worker job reservation.  In fact they used the slogan”Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!” as a rally call to their Communist brethren all over the world to join them.

To anyone who is wondering at this stage why the modern African National Congress (ANC) politicians when in conflict with the modern South African Communist Party (SACP) politicians feely call them ‘racists’, now you know the reason why.

The Rand Revolt background

In the early days of mining no Africans possessed the skills necessary for deep level mining, therefore the division of the work force had been between white miners and white management. The custom that skilled work was done by white men had been reinforced by legislation when Chinese labourers were introduced.  During World War I the overall ratio of white to black workers had been maintained. As time passed, however, black miners began to acquire these skills, although their wages remained at very low rates. In September 1918, white mine workers had succeeded in persuading the Chamber of Mines to agree that no position filled by a white worker should be given to an African or Coloured worker.

When the Chamber of Mines gave notice that it would be abandoning the agreement and would be replacing 2,000 semi-skilled white men with cheap black labour, the white miners reacted strongly. Their jobs and pay packets were threatened by the removal of the colour bar, and they feared the social encroachment on their lives that differences in colour, standards of living, and the cultural background of the coloured races might make. Sporadic strikes were launched in 1921, but these did not become widespread until the end of the year.

The trade unions

Because of the large number of mines and workingmen living in and around Fordsburg, Johannesburg, trade unions had become active in this area. This set the scene for the revolt in Fordsburg. At this time some trade union members were attracted to the spirit of socialism and others became communists, who referred to themselves as ‘Reds’. The leader of the Communist Party, Bill Andrews, known to his chums as ‘Comrade Bill’, urged a general strike. In the meanwhile, a group of revolutionaries organized commandos under the leadership of people who called themselves the ‘Federation of Labour.’

Strikes

The New Year marked a strike on the collieries of the Transvaal. Strikes soon spread to the gold mines of the Reef, especially those in the East Rand, when electrical power workers and those in engineering and foundry occupations followed suit. By January 10, stoppage of work in mining and allied trades was complete. Bob Waterston, Labour Party MP, sponsored a resolution urging that a provisional government declare a South Africa republic. Tielman Roos, leader of the National Party in the Transvaal, submitted this proposal to a conference of MPs convened in Pretoria, but they rejected it outright. Roos himself was emphatic that the National Party would have nothing to do with a revolt.

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The revolt itself

In February 1922, the protracted negotiations with the South African Industrial Federation broke down when the Action Group seized control, armed some white miners, and set up barricades. Mob violence spread alarmingly with bands of white men shooting and bludgeoning unoffending Africans and coloured men ‘as though they were on a rat hunt’. A general strike was proclaimed on Monday, 6 March and on Wednesday, the strike turned into open revolution in a bid to capture the city.

On 8 March, white workers attempted to take over the Johannesburg post office and the power station, but they met with stout resistance from the police, and the day ended in fights between white strikers and black miners. The Red commandos made the most of this chaos by encouraging their rebel followers to obtain firearms and other weapons from white miners and their sympathizers under the pretext of trying to protect women and children from attacking blacks. By spreading the alarm, they discovered who had firearms and immediately confiscated them. The following day six units of the Active Citizen Force were called out to prevent further disorder.

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On Friday, 10 March, a series of explosions signalled the advance of the Red commandos and an orgy of violence began. To quell this the Union Defence Force was called out, as well as the aircraft of the fledgling SAAF and the artillery. By this time, Brakpan was already in the hands of the rebels, and pitched battles were raging between the strikers and the police for control of Benoni and Springs. Aeroplanes strafed rebels and bombed the Workers’ Hall at Benoni. Rebels besieged the Brakpan and Benoni police garrisons. At Brixton 1,500 rebels surrounded 183 policemen and besieged them for 48 hours. From the air, pilots observed the plight of the beleaguered Brixton policemen. Swooping over them, they dropped supplies, and then returned to bomb the rebels. During one of these sorties Colonel Sir Pierre van Ryneveld’s observer, Captain Carey Thomas, was shot through the heart.

Martial law was proclaimed and burgher commandos were called up from the surrounding districts. On Saturday, 11 March, the Reds attacked a small detachment of the Imperial Light Horse at Ellis Park in Doornfontein, which sustained serious losses, and, on their way to the East Rand, the Transvaal Scottish marched into an ambush at Dunswart, sustaining heavy losses. The rebels searched citizens passing through Jeppestown and Fordsburg and sniped at those they thought were supporters of the mine management, as well as many policemen on duty in the streets. Prime Minister General Jan Smuts was widely blamed for letting the situation get out of hand. He arrived on the Rand at midnight to take charge of the situation.

The rebellion is crushed

On Sunday, 12 March, military forces and citizens attacked the rebels holding out on the Brixton ridge and took 2,200 prisoners. The next day government troops led by General van Deventer relieved the besieged police garrisons in Brakpan and Benoni. On 15 March, the artillery bombarded the strikers’ stronghold at Fordsburg Square and in the afternoon, it fell to the government. Before committing suicide in this building, the two communist leaders, Fisher and Spendiff, left a joint note: ‘We died for what we believed in – the Cause’. Samuel Alfred (Taffy) Long, heralded by subsequent labour histories as one of South Africa’s greatest working-class martyrs, was arrested after the defeat of Fordsburg. He was charged with murder and later also with high treason and the possession of loot.

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From 15 to 19 March 1922, government troops cleared areas of snipers and did house-to-house searches of premises belonging to the Reds, making many arrests. On March 16, the Union Defence Headquarters issued a press statement that the revolt had been a social revolution organized by Bolshevists, international socialists and communists. The revolt was declared over from midnight on 18 March.

Aftermath and resultant changes in goverment and law

In all the Rand Revolt was a calamity. It cost many lives and millions of pounds. About 200 people were killed – including many policemen, and more than 1,000 people were injured. Fifteen thousand men were put out of work and gold production slumped. In the aftermath, some of the rebels were deported and a few were executed for deeds that amounted to murder. John Garsworthy, leader of the Brakpan commando, was sentenced to death, but he was later reprieved. Four of the leaders were condemned to death and went to the gallows singing their anthem, ‘The Red Flag’.

The Red Flag anthem was the rally anthem for British Communists – and as an aside it is still the official song for the British Labour Party and sung at their annual party rally.

Smuts was widely criticised for his severe handling of the revolt. He lost support and was defeated in the 1924 general election. This gave Hertzog’s Nationalist Party and the Labour Party, supported by white urban workers, the opportunity to form a pact (the old adage ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ applied – a strange and uneasy pact indeed).

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JBM Hertzog

Whilst Smuts stood in opposition, three important Acts were passed by Hertzog’s Nationalists whilst in pact with Labour.  They gave increasing employment opportunities to whites and introduced programme of African segregation. The first was the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924, which set up machinery for consultation between employers’ organisations and trade unions. The second was the Wage Act, which set up a board to recommend minimum wages and conditions of employment. The third was the Mines and Works Amendment Act of 1926, which firmly established the principle of the colour bar in certain mining jobs.

 South African Communists U-turn

Two things happened after the 1922 Revolt that would have long reacting ramifications. Firstly Jan Smuts lost the next election and had to sit in the opposition bench and endure coalition Nationalist law making in the Union along race barrier lines for 15 years until 1939, when he finally became Prime Minister of South Africa for a second time.

Secondly the South African Communist Party evolved into the political juggernaut it is now, and in a strange twist, the Rand Revolt in 1922 forced the hard-line Communists to re-appraise their views on ‘white’ worker rights.  The Rand Revolt showed this to be a weakness and broader population support was needed if there was to be any significant Communist revolt in South Africa to create an independent Republic under communist rule.

So, even though their jobs were now protected by ‘colour bar’ laws, they turned against these hard fought for rights.  ‘Comrade Bill’ Andrews was expelled from the South African Communist Party in a series of purges over the their new “black Republic” policy (he was only permitted to rejoin the SACP many years later in 1938 aged 68).

Just six years after the Rand Revolt, by 1928 the SACP agreed with their controlling body ‘Communist International’ to adopt the “Native Republic” thesis which stipulated that South Africa was a country belonging to the Natives i.e. the Blacks. The resolution was influenced by a delegation from South Africa. James la Guma, the new Communist Party Chairperson from Cape Town, he had already met with the leadership of ‘Communist International’ to agree the new way forward.

By 1928, 1,600 of the SACP’s 1,750 members were Black. During this period, the party was accused of dismissing attempts by other multiracial revolutionary organisations (the ANC and  Syndicalists) and using revisionist history to claim that the Communist party and its Native Republic policy was the only viable route to African liberation.

By 1929: the party adopted a “strategic line” which held that, “The most direct line of advance to socialism runs through the mass struggle for majority rule”.

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The SACP today

Did Smuts have a choice?

Smuts sent in 20 000 troops to crush the Revolt.  The fact is, it was a Communist Revolt to establish the Transvaal as a Communist Republic, and not just a simple strike.  The Communists wanted the fight, tooled up for the fight and even annexed cities to forward their goal.  So the answer in truth is that Smuts did not really have a choice.

Would anyone else have reacted any differently to Smuts?

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Jan Smuts

Upfront we established that the old Boere Transvaal Republic had no appetite for these militant miners and their strikes and revolts.  Their reaction in quelling them was brutal and swift.

Politically expedient packs between the Communists and the Nationalists after the 1922 Revolt aside, the Nationalists had real no appetite for the Communists – and by 1928 the Communists certainly had no appetite for the Nationalists.

The Nationalists, who by 1948 were in full control of South Africa, had a deep-seated hatred for Communism, they regarded them as the ‘Rooi gevaar’ (Red Danger) and used this as a call to action when embarking South Africa on a war against Communism.  This manifested itself in not only the implementation of ‘anti-communist’ legislation and the ‘banning’ of the organisation in 1950, but also in a proxy Cold War against ‘Communism’ fought in Angola and Namibia from 1966 to 1989.  Over the two decades of The Border War, the Nationalists killed thousands more ‘communists’ using the country’s defence force.  It was certainly a far stronger reaction against Communism than Smuts’ use of the defence force against the Communists in the Rand Revolt.

So to answer the hypothetical question whether the Nationalists would have reacted differently to the Rand Revolt had they been in power instead of Smuts, the answer would in all likelihood be ‘no’, in fact it would be very probable that their reaction would have been even more brutal.

In Conclusion

The irony does not end there as to strange bedfellows and the war against Communism for the Nationalists, in waging their war against Communism the Nationalists found themselves in bed with Jonus Savimbi and his ‘anti-colonial’ movement UNITA fighting the proxy Cold War in Angola.  By 1988, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale found the National Party in a deep political hole and they had to use the South African Defence Force to very bravely (and successfully) fight their way out of it.  To negotiate a peace, PW Botha and the National Party hung UNITA out to dry, agreed with Cuba and the MPLA’s Soviet alliance as to the withdrawal of their Communist forces from Angola so the Nationalists could go home and declare a ‘victory’ over Communism (the Cubans in turn could go home and declare they liberated Namibia see ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’).

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Thereafter, just five very short years later, by 1994, the Nationalists of FW de Klerk had handed South Africa to the ANC/COSATU/Communist Party Tripartite Alliance with the Nationalists in coalition government again.  The twists and turns of history now really show up the ‘full circle’ nature of history and why it repeats itself – because by April 2005 the ‘sunset clause’ was over and the National Party folded shop completely – and for political expediency again – their MP’s walked the floor to amalgamate with the ANC and their Communist labour alliance in a full merger.  You could cut the irony with a knife at this stage.

How predictable is history in that it ‘repeats’ itself, and in light of all this ‘political expediency’, ‘irony’, ‘strange bedfellows’ and twisting by the party of Afrikaner nationalism, we have to genuinely ask ourselves how much of their constant criticism of Smuts over the 1922 Revolt was genuine and how much was just a case of political sandbagging?

 


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Chief extract of the time-line of the Revolt taken from South African History Online (SAHO) 1922 Rand Rebellion.  Other references include Wikipedia.

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

You might remember heroic figures like Oskar Schindler (the famous “Schindler’s List”) who rescued groups of Jews from certain annihilation during World War 2. But did you know Jan Smuts also played a significant role in rescuing 200 Jewish orphans from the “Pogroms” in the Ukraine in 1921? Here’s a little bit of little known history involving an unlikely South African hero, Isaac Ochberg, and it’s one we can all stand proud of.

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In the early 1920s, reports trickled through to South Africa of tragic forces occurring in the Ukraine. Following the collapse of the old Czarist Empire in 1917, rival Red and White armies were fighting for control. Although the battles did not start out as particularly anti-Semitic, the Jews’ condition deteriorated.

Famine was followed by typhoid epidemics for the entire population, but it was made worse for the Jews by pogroms. Ukrainian and Polish peasants joined forces with reactionary military forces to massacre Jews wherever they found them inside the Pale of Settlement.

In despairing letters smuggled through enemy lines, Jews begged their cousins in South Africa for help. These pleas immediately stirred South Africa’s Jewish communities. People asked at meetings across the country if at least the children could be rescued from the Ukraine. Before any organisation could step in, generous offers of financial and other assistance were made by Russian-born Cape Town businessman Isaac Ochberg.

Two questions became critical to Issac Ochberg: How could the orphans be rescued from a war-torn region, and would the South African government create any difficulties in admitting them?

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Jan Smuts

Ochberg immediately contacted the Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts, and Mr. Patrick Duncan, the Minister of the Interior.  Smuts granted permission to land, without restriction, as many youngsters as could be saved.

A South African Relief Fund for Jewish War Victims had already come into operation, when, at a special meeting called in his office on August 19, 1920, Ochberg proposed that the Cape Jewish Orphanage “take all the responsibilities of bringing the children out, and taking care of them.” In addition it should act as a clearing-house, whence they could be distributed among charitable people for adoption.

By January 1921, the South African Relief Fund for Jewish War Victims had persuaded Smuts and his government to give on a pound for pound principle to the Pogrom Orphan Fund, and it was felt that not 200 but 250 children could be brought to South Africa.

As reports of the Jews’ plight continued to arrive in South Africa, the size of the tragedy became clearer. 100,000-150,000 Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered by Ukrainian nationalists and another 400,000 Jewish orphans were starving.

The next step was for someone to travel to Eastern Europe and make arrangements on the spot. Ochberg agreed to go. For two months Ochberg travelled by train, wagon and on horseback around the Pale, looking for orphaned children. The Ukrainian children knew only that “The Man From Africa” was coming and he was going to take some of them away to a new home, on the other side of the world.

Ochberg’s worst problem was how to select which children to take and which he had to leave in Eastern Europe. So he decided to choose eight children from each institution, until he reached a total of exactly 200. Since the South African government required that the children had to be in good physical and mental health, careful selection was essential. In addition, only those who had lost BOTH parents were accepted.

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In Pinsk alone, so many children had been orphaned that 3 new orphanages had to be opened. At first, Pinsk was so isolated by the fighting that the children were dependent solely on their own resources. There were no blankets, beds or clothes. Typhus broke out in one of the orphanages and the pogroms raged for a week at a time. As order was restored, food supplies began to trickle in, first from Berlin and then from the Joint Distribution Committee.

Ochberg moved from town to town, visiting Minsk, Pinsk, Stanislav, Lodz, Lemberg and Wlodowa, collecting orphans. How did he get the children out – on wagons.

Three months later, with the 200 children in London, he wrote to Jan Smuts’ government in South Africa

“I have been through almost every village in the Polish Ukraine and Galicia and am now well acquainted with the places where there is at present extreme suffering. I have succeeded in collecting the necessary number of children, and I can safely say that the generosity displayed by South African Jewry in making this mission possible means nothing less than saving their lives. They would surely have died of starvation, disease, or been lost to our nation for other reasons. I am now in London with the object of arranging transport and I hope to be able to advise soon of my departure for South Africa with the children.”.

The story of getting to South Africa and horror is remembered by one of the orphans in an interview years later, Fanny Shie (Lockitch).  She became orphaned after her father, who was in the Russian Army, had died in a gas attack and her mother passed away during the 1918 Influenza.

In a Orphanage in Brest-Litovsk, she recalled “Although the war was over, we were suffering from lack of coal, from lack of clothes, from lack of food and from lack of care. To give an idea of conditions, I can remember how we had the Russians in the city at one moment, and a few days later the Poles. Looking out of the Orphanage windows, one could see some of the hand-to-hand battles with bayonets, and the corpses lying in the street that led up to the fortress.”

“One day we heard that a ‘Man from Africa’ was coming. He was going to take some of us away with him and give us a new home on the other side of the world. Nearly all the orphans had lost both parents, many of them in pogroms, on the Ukrainian border, at Minsk, Pinsk and other places. One poor little boy, who afterwards came to South Africa and is now a successful man in Johannesburg, had his hand hacked off by some ruffian.”

“Among us children the news aroused mixed feelings. We all liked the idea of going to a beautiful new country, but we also heard stories of robbers and wild animals, and that we might be eaten by lions. However, when Mr. Ochberg appeared, with his reddish hair and cheery smile, we all took a great liking to him and soon called him ‘Daddy’.”

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The Children were issued very unique passports, they were “In quantity”, a multiple named passport with a group photograph with as many as 30 children sitting in rows.

“We set off for Africa,” recalled Mrs. Fanny Lockitch, “each with a tiny package of the clothing that had already been sent to us from overseas, and a few pitiful trifles like photographs or dolls”

Travelling from Warsaw to London, the Orphans and carers then boarded the Edinburgh Castle to Cape Town.

“Never until my dying day,” said Mrs. Fanny Lockitch, “shall I forget our first sight of the lights of Cape Town”.

OchbergOrphansArriveCapetownA tremendous reception awaited the orphans when they came ashore in Cape Town. So large was the group of children that the Cape Jewish Orphanage was unable to house them all, so 78 went on to Johannesburg.

Special English speaking classes were organised for the children, and the warmth, friendship and the hospitality of South Africa showed itself when number­less orphans found new homes.

Ochberg died in 1937 while on an ocean voyage, 59 years old. He was buried in Cape Town at one of the largest funerals ever seen there. Ochberg left what was then the largest single bequest to the Jewish National Fund. The JNF used it to redeem a piece of land in Israel called Nahalat Yitzhak Ochberg – which included the kibbutzim of Dalia and Ein Hashofet.

An Ochberg dedication ceremony took place at Kibbutz Dalia on 19th of July 2011. For the thousands of descendants of his orphans, he is the reason they are alive.

Over the years various projects and films have been compiled, many of the original orphans’ children and grandchildren have been traced and have honoured Ochberg’s memory, South Africa’s very own “Oskar Schindler”.

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Content and article sourced from The Jerusalem Post from an article by Lionel Slier 07/18/201 and The Issac Ochberg Story on-line website. Researched by Peter Dickens.

South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2

The commemoration of the South African Air Force sacrifice during the Warsaw uprising in Poland highlights another bit of “unknown” World War 2 history. During the war – Jan Smuts opened South Africa to care for Polish orphans and children traumatised and displaced by the war. Ouma Smuts also played a leading role in ensuring they were correctly tutored and continued to have high appreciation of their rich Polish cultural heritage.
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Military assistance to Poland was not the only contribution, the government of Jan Smuts also provided a home in Oudtshoorn to 500 Polish children who had been deported to Siberia in the early 1940s by the Soviets when their country was divided between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

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

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

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

Polish Orphans in South Africa

The Polish Children’s Home (Dom Polskich Dzieci) was organized in Oudtshoorn for their temporary accommodation, care and education. Under the supervision of the South African Department of Social Welfare, as well as Polish consular and ministry representatives, it remained in operation until 1947.

This remarkable piece of British Pathé newsreel film accounts the children’s home in Oudtshoorn and the “new life” afforded to these Polish children, it brings to light the character of South Africa at the time – especially the care and benevolence shown by South Africa and the “Oubaas and Ouma” to displaced war refugees in Europe at the time of their greatest need. Take the time to watch the film and know why, as South Africans, we can stand with pride in our country and the great deeds it has done.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Film copyright African Mirror and British Pathé

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

smutsThere are still a handful of conservative ‘Afrikaner nationalist’ white people in South Africa who would still toe the old Nationalist line on Smuts, that he was a ‘verraaier’ – a traitor to his people, his death welcomed.  However, little do they know that many of the old Nationalist architects of Apartheid held Smuts in very high regard.

DF Malan, on the day of Smuts’ death, 11th September 1950, was the Prime Minister of South Africa, his Nationalist party had defeated Smuts’ United party two years earlier in 1948 whilst pushing the Nationalist proposals to further entrench racial segregation with a concept they called Apartheid.  Smuts on the other hand, foresaw the need to extend the ideas of ‘Union’ which had brought Afrikaner and Briton together to include Black South Africans. On voting rights, he had made his views clear to Hertzog as early as 1920 when in a private meeting he proposed a Qualification Franchise (not a Universal one though) for black South Africans (Hertzog was an ardent Nationalist and rejected the idea outright).

Smuts was born into a system of ‘Empire’ and that was the socio-political sphere everyone understood, including Smuts.  Over time Smuts’ views on racial segregation gradually evolved from the generally understood divided evolution edicts of his day (based on where nations stood on the ‘civilisation’ continuum).  On the international stage by the mid 1940’s, when Smuts was outside of the pressures of South Africa’s race politics (even from inside of his own political party) and not toeing his party’s line, here his views started to really shape up.

By the middle of World War 2 he had taken on a deep sense of individual liberty for all mankind, emancipation and freedom from any sort of oppression (including State).  These views, based on what he termed man’s universal “spirit” for freedom forged by two world wars, they were consolidated in his work on the United Nations and exposed on an international stage in a number of speeches.

Back in South Africa after the war, as a precursor to these views on universal liberty, Smuts had already changed from his old positions on segregation and proposed ‘integration’ instead of ‘separation’ and he had also already promised black community leaders greater political representation if they supported his war effort, voting rights under Smuts were already secure for South Africans of Indian origin and the Cape Coloured community.  On the Nationalists proposals of Apartheid he once said:

“The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own Kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”.

The nationalists touted a fear of ‘black danger’ under this more democratically minded Smuts if he won, and it struck a cautionary chord with many white voters and the Nationalists won the day, surprisingly and against the odds, and not by a majority mind – but on a constitutional seat basis.

On losing the election Smuts made one of his greatest speeches in 1949 at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument to a largely Afrikaner crowd, it says everything of where he stood on integration and the future of South Africa, he said:

“Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations”. He went on to say, that this was “the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

Simply put, the country’s white community at Smuts’ death was very split down the middle on the issue of ‘Apartheid’ and what it would bring, the majority of South Africans did not favour it and they had heeded Smuts’ warnings of what entrenched race politics would bring to South Africa’s future.

The death of Jan Smuts

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DF Malan

DF Malan was attending a National Party political rally to the party faithful and whipping up support for the edicts of Apartheid when Smuts’ died.   An aide walked up to him and handed him a note with the news of Smuts’ death, what he does next would surprise even the hardest right-wing Afrikaner Nationalist.

Instead of gleeful celebration of the demise of this most hated enemy of the Apartheid cause, the man repeatedly called a ‘traitor’ by the Nationalists, a man who had the ‘blood’ of Jopie Fourie on his hands, the ‘hansopper’ and ‘joiner’ turncoat who favoured the union of the Afrikaner with the hated British to heal South Africa over and above separationist Afrikaner rule, the King’s ‘hanskakie’ puppet, old ‘slim Jannie’ who put global interests and governance ahead of his ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner peoples) – no Dr. Malan’s reaction to the news was somewhat different to what most people now would even think.

DF Malan immediately turned pale, he slowly sat down, slumped over and cupped his hands to his face. He had lost a lifelong and very close friend.  Their political positions aside, Malan had a deep sense of admiration for his old friend.

He had to be helped up to stand at the microphone, where he announced that “a great figure of our time” has just died, he called the Nationalists to silence and then cancelled the rally.  His colleagues reporting that they had never seen Malan so distressed.

DF Malan’s reaction says a lot about Smuts, the importance he had in the formation of South Africa, he was the original ‘reconciler’ of the warring nations in South Africa, his idea of union based his philosophy of holism – all parts of the sphere make the whole, made the state of South Africa as we know it, he was quite literally the ‘father’ of the South African nation, and now he was lost.

 

The universal appreciation of Smuts at the time, both by his supporters and his detractors, would see a nationwide and even worldwide outpouring of grief, Smuts’ funeral was something else, a funeral not seen since in South Africa and only seen again when Nelson Mandela died.

To even begin to contemplate Smuts’ importance to not only South Africa, but to the free world consider what Winston Churchill wrote to Isie (Ouma Smuts), his wife, expressing his condolences, and what he wrote sums up the loss perfectly.

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

In his lifetime, Smuts had advanced to a level of greatness that is more substantive and more far-reaching to the modern human race than any South African before and even after him (with all respect to Nelson Mandela and his legacy).

Add to this what King George VI wrote Ouma Smuts and you start to see a pattern.  He wrote:

“the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”.

To understand his impact to humankind by way of an obituary to his milestone accolades, consider the following:

The birth of South Africa

The establishment of the state of South Africa in 1910. His proposal of ‘Union’ with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal brought South Africa out of the devastation of the Boer War and the resultant decimation of the Boer nation. Despite winning the war, in just four years of Colonising everything, Britain had handed all control of her colonies in South Africa to an independent parliament to Westminster, able to make its own laws to forge its own destiny, headed up by two Boer Generals of which Smuts was one.

The Boers had lost their two small Republics to war and now, thanks to Smuts’ skill and British confidence in his vision and him, the Boer commanders were very quickly back in governance of both their ‘old’ Republics and in addition, both the British Colonies as well – without a shot been fired.  To quote Smuts ‘they gave our country back’.  He reflected that at no time in Britain’s long history had such a ‘miracle of trust and magnanimity’ ever happened.

British ‘meddling’ and ‘warmongering’ in South Africa would never happen on the same scale again, and in fact they were making reparations for the damage they had caused by way of economic support.

The League of Nations and United Nations

He played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts, he even drafted the outlines for the The Treaty of Versailles. His outline was not fully followed and he warned the League of a future calamity with Germany – how prophetic he was.

With the demise of the League of Nations (the USA left it), Smuts still held the view that a more robust world peace body was required involving all nations holding each other to account.  He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: The United Nations (UN).

Smuts wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person in history to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see earlier Observation Post link Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).

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Smuts signing the United Nations Charter

 

The British Commonwealth of Nations

He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, he helped establish the concept of a ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ based on devolved British authority instead of a ‘British Empire’ and by doing so he served to end Britain’s ‘Empire. He in fact came up with the term ‘Commonwealth’ and it was to his recommendations that the King listened.

The birth of Israel

In 1932, the kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in Israel was named after him. Smuts was a vocal proponent of the creation of a Jewish state, and spoke out against the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  His relationship with the Jews and Israel did not stop there, he was one of the driving forces behind the Balfour Declaration which established the state of Israel (see earlier Observation Post A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts.)

World Wars and Military Milestones

He became South Africa’s only Field Marshal, having taken South Africa to both World Wars on the side of democracy and freedom.  The Second World War alone launched the manufacturing might of South Africa largely due to the support of the war effort.  By the end of WW2, South Africa, a muddle of small colonies and republics just 40 years earlier, now stood as a key contributing world player.

He was the only person with in-depth military experience to join The British War Cabinet, at the insistence of the King, during World War 1 (the rest were Politicians) and in so played a key role in guiding the outcome of World War 1.

He gave birth to the idea of an independent Air Force free from Navy or Army control in 1917, that saw the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the oldest independent air arm in the world and in addition carried this over to form The South African Air Force, the second oldest. Modern military construct now still follows The Smuts Report on the use of air power (see earlier Observation Post link Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force).

Smuts had a long string of successful military command, notwithstanding his Command of a Boer Commando during the Anglo-Boer war, evading defeat for the entire duration of the war.  He founded the South African Defence Force after Union, commanded UDF forces alongside Botha in taking German South West Africa during WW1, the first ‘Allied’ victory of the war.  He went on to command all the British and Commonwealth Forces in the East African campaign during WW1, chasing General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces all over East Africa, and in so doing he captured Dar-es-Salaam, the German East Africa capital. However, to really put Smuts in perspective, when he heard that his old enemy, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had fallen into destitution after WW2, it was Smuts who personally extended aid and food to him (to Smuts war was not a personal thing amongst soldiers).

During the Second World War he was appointed to the British King’s Privy Council.   The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war, Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have need to have been made a peer and constitutional issues would have prevented it.  Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become.

Again, as a member of the British War Council, he played a key role in the outcome of World War 2 and the Allied Victory.  He even accompanied Winston Churchill shoulder to shoulder to oversee Operation Overlord (D Day) and the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe.

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Smuts and Churchill in France overseeing Operation Overlord (D Day)

 

Many historians would now even point to the notion that Churchill regarded Smuts’ advice above anyone else’s advice on his war effort and strategy (see related Observation Post story Smuts’ keen sense of smell detects Germans hiding nearby).

Domestic acclaim

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Emily Hobhouse

The deep-seated pain of the Boer War concentration camps and how it affected Afrikaner identity was also something that Smuts actively addressed (Ouma Smuts was herself interned in a concentration camp, and Smuts had also tragically lost family to the system).  He became a friend and confidant of Emily Hobhouse in addressing the issue with the British over many years. The Magnolia seeds she gave him in friendship now stand as a full botanical statement to this outside his house in Irene.

He brought the government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations, putting them to the same equality and status of the ‘Cape Colourds’ who already enjoyed an equal universal franchise in South Africa at the time.  In doing so he became a life-long admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who in turn also regarded Smuts as one of the greatest statesmen of his time.

To illustrate this admiration, Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Smuts with a pair of sandals made by Gandhi himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals with the following message:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

(see earlier Observation Post story “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”).

In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to ‘Indians’ and ‘Africans’ respectively (although there were still differences in the level of grants paid out). He also instituted the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946.

International acclaim

55bfc5b0ef884389cd7a9bddf3645bd8Smuts was honoured by many countries and on many occasions, as a standout Smuts was the first Prime Minister of a Commonwealth country (any country for that matter) to address both sitting Houses of the British Parliament – the Commons and the Lords during World War 2.  To which he received a standing ovation from both houses.

Such was the admiration of Smuts that his statue stands outside Westminster on Parliament Square in London for his contribution to world politics and as a great reformer.

Now he stands alongside the likes of Ghandi, Mandela and Abraham Lincoln as the only other ‘foreign’ statesmen honoured in the square.  Whilst, ironically, in South Africa his legacy has taken an absolute battering and his statues removed.

Take the time to listen to Smuts’ speech to both houses of Parliament, note his views on all mankind’s basic freedoms and what he envisions as the future by way of fundamental reforms.  Also note the short praise by Winston Churchill when Smuts concludes his speech and the reaction of the British Parliament, a reaction that has not been seen in British politics since, it is very unique.

 

Charity

In 1921 Smuts, along with Field Marshal Haig, established The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) in Cape Town.  The RCEL sought to consolidate war veteran’s charities all over the world to care for the returning military service personnel in the Commonwealth.  It saw the establishment or re-purposed institutions which now play a significant role in care for servicemen worldwide, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion, The Returned Services League Australia and The South African Legion to name a few.

He also made South Africa available to Jewish orphans escaping the Pogroms of Eastern Europe (despite resistance from South African nationalists).  For a full story on this remarkable chapter, see an earlier Observation Post 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

He again made South Africa available to Polish orphan children escaping the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, establishing a grateful and thriving small Polish community in South Africa (see earlier Observation Post South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2 ).

Academia

Smuts was also an accredited philosopher, his work on Holism brought him high acclaim from his Philosopher peers.  Holism can be defined as “the fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” and was published in 1926.  For Smuts it formed the grounding behind his concepts of the League of Nations and United Nations.

Smuts was also an accredited Botanist, his books and illustrations on South African grasses (veld) are still regarded as the definitive work.

21731360_2020995841462737_816238144166127637_nWhilst studying law at Christ’s College at Cambridge University, he was rated as one of the top three students they have ever had (Christ’s College is nearly 600-year-old).  The other two were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

His intellect was unsurpassed, to pass an exam at Cambridge he learnt Greek (fluently) in just 6 days. His wife was no intellectual slouch either, later in life Jan Smuts and Ouma Smuts used to tease one another when one would recite a Bible verse and the other would be expected to recite the following one, from memory, in Greek!

In 1948, Smuts was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first real non-Briton outside of British Royalty to be elected to the position in the 800 year-old history of Cambridge University.

Vision

Smuts’ idea of ‘Union’ and vision for South Africa was that of a ‘United States of South Africa’ including countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the Union.  It was to be a significant player on the world stage drawing on Africa’s vast resources to see it as a leading political and economic power block (much like the USA is now).  Can you imagine if Botswana and Rhodesia voted to join the Union (they chose not to at the time), what a different history we would have seen in Southern Africa – ‘Apartheid’ may never have happened just for starters.

A humble man

Personally, Smuts was a God-fearing, frugal and humble man. He chose as his house an old rickety, uninsulated, fully corrugated iron, transportable military head office.  He preferred to sleep outside on the ‘stoup’ (veranda) on a small single hard wood bed, his garden was the natural veld. There were no stately mansions or ‘Nkandla’ with ‘fire pools’ for Smuts and he would not have had it anyway.

Legacy

The National Party in a sinister move, gradually and over the long period of Apartheid insidiously smeared Smuts and his legacy, erasing from the general consciousness of just what a great South African Smuts had become. Modern South Africans grew up with almost no regard for Smuts, and if you had to ask a young Black South African today who Smuts was he’ll probably say he was one of the white Apartheid monsters, the white English children will have no idea and the White Afrikaans ones may remember something about him been traitor to Afrikaners.  A student in Canada studying world politics would have a better grip on Smuts than a South African student.

Luckily this is beginning to change, and landmark Biographies are being written now which start to fully explore who and what Jan Smuts was, and it is both fascinating and eye-opening.  It is very hard to sum up all the greatness Smuts was to attain, and certainly for his time his deeds set him well apart from any of the other Statesmen South Africa has produced, certainly if you consider all the subsequent South African Premiers other than Mandela. We have a wonderful story in Smuts, and what we have a character of force – a polyglot, philosopher, botanist, intellectual, lawyer, politician, statesmen, reformer and warrior –  a story and a man who is best summed up by Alan Paton who said:

“Even the great thought he was great.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References: Jan Smuts reconsidered Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  Video footage copyright Associated Press.  My deep thanks to Philip Weyers for the Smuts family insight and access.

Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force

August 2017 marks the centenary of the report to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), the idea of an independent Air Force from Navy or Army control is now officially 100 years old, and one key South African statesman, General Jan Smuts, gave birth to it.

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Smuts in WW1

Today, if you walk into the Royal Air Force Private Club in Mayfair, London you are greeted by a bust of Jan Smuts in the foyer, it stands there as an acknowledgement to the man who founded what is now one of the most prestigious and powerful air forces in the world – The RAF.

So how did it come to be that a South African started The Royal Air Force and why the need to have a separate and independent arm of service?

Simply put, during World War 1, the British Army and the Navy developed their own air-forces in support of their own respective ground and naval operations. The Royal Flying Corps had been born out of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and was under the control of the British Army. The Royal Naval Air Service was its naval equivalent and was controlled by the Admiralty.

However, the use of air power in World War 1 was developing beyond the immediate tactical use of aircraft by the Navy and the Army. In Great Britain the civilian population had been on the receiving end of extensive German bombing raids dropped from flying Zeppelin airships, the public outrage and the psychological effects of this bombing was having a significant impact on British politicians.

In reaction to this, the politicians proposed the creation of a long-range bombing force both as a retaliation and also as a means of disrupting enemy war production. There were also continuing concerns about aircraft supply and priorities between the services.

The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George asked General Jan Smuts to join his War Cabinet (the supreme authority governing Great Britain and her Empire’s forces in World War 1). Lloyd George then commissioned General Jan Smuts to report on two issues:

Firstly to look into arrangements for Home Defence against bombing and secondly, air organisation generally and the direction of aerial operations.  Smuts is generally accredited with improving British air defence and answering the first priority.

7960001505000118_fillHowever it was ‘Smuts report’ of August 1917 in response to the second of these questions that led to the recommendation to establish a separate Air Service. In making his recommendations Smuts commented that

“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”.

Given this new dimension he commented that it was important that the design of aircraft and engines for such operations should be settled in accordance with the policy which would direct their future strategic employment. On these grounds he argued there was an urgent need to create an Air Ministry and that this Ministry should sort out the amalgamation of the two air services.

The War Cabinet accepted this recommendation to amalgamate the two separate air forces 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’).

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The War Cabinet during WW1, Smuts seated bottom, far right

The RAF was officially formed on the 1 April 1918 with the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and  the Royal Flying Corps. Following which Lord Rothermere was appointed on 3 January 1918 as the first Secretary of State for Air and an Air Council established.

To emphasise the merger of both army and naval aviation in the new service, to appease the ‘senior service’ i.e. the Navy, many of the titles of officers were deliberately chosen to be of a naval character, such as Flight Lieutenant, Wing Commodore, Group Captain and Air Commodore.

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Royal Air Force

The newly created Royal Air Force was the most powerful air force in the world on its creation, with over 20,000 aircraft and over 300,000 personnel (including the Women’s Royal Air Force). It now qualifies as the oldest independent Air Force in the World.

General Smuts was to take his recommendations and findings across to form an independent South African Air Force (SAAF).  Smuts appointed Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld as the Director Air Services (DAS) with effect from 1 February 1920 with instructions to establish an air force for the South African Union. This date is acknowledged as marking the official birth of the SAAF.  The SAAF now qualifies as the second oldest independent Air Force in the world.

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South African Air Force

In a nutshell, both the RAF and SAAF as we know them today, were given to us by Jan Smuts as a founding father.  Funnily, Smuts was often criticised domestically as ‘Slim’ Jannie (clever little Jan), a term Smuts hated as it was coined by the Hertzog Nationalists to mean that Jan Smuts was too clever for his ‘volk’ (peoples) and therefore out of touch, it was done for political expediency at Smuts’ personal expense.  Smuts disliked the term as it as it ironically belittled the Afrikaner and positioned his people as ‘simpletons’, something Smuts fundamentally disagreed with, and something they most certainly are not.

That said, domestically Smuts’ political adversaries in the opposition National Party carried on with this belittling ‘Slim Jannie’ nickname to further criticise his ability to command at a strategic level, stating that his approach was too ‘intellectual’ for effective command.

All modern military strategy is formulated on joint arms of service with an independent air arm. You only have to look to any modern military construct of any military superpower today to see just what a visionary and strategist Jan Smuts was. The proof of his ability to command strategically is in the pudding.  Smuts’ ground-breaking report in August 1917 now guides all modern strategic military planning by simple way of how the arms of service are now constructed (Army, Navy, Air Force i.e. ground, sea, air), how they co-ordinate with one another and how they are commanded.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References – Birth of the Royal Air Force (Royal Air Force Museum), Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia.  Images copyright, Imperial War Museum.

Britain never ‘stood alone’!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


Source – wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica

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

Grab your packet of Romany Creams from the pantry, bite into South Africa’s top-selling chocolate biscuit then settle down and to read some very rich South African World War 1 history.  History is often connected by remarkable ‘golden threads’ and this one takes you on a wonderful journey – all the way from shooting down Zeppelin’s bombing England to your favourite tea time ‘choccy biccy’.

Our story starts with a young South African, Ian Vernon Pyott.  Ian was the son of a Scotsman named John Pyott. John, was born in Dundee, Scotland and was a baker’s apprentice at aged 10.  Due to ill-health, John was advised to move to a better climate – so he packed off to Cape Town, South Africa and in 1880 he moved to Port Elizabeth where he manufactured sweets, cakes and jams before later moving into bread and biscuits. On 1 December 1900, Pyott converted his business into a limited liability company and named it “Pyott Limited”.  Highly successful, between 1898 and 1924, the Company was to receive no fewer than 70 medals at various exhibitions across the country

Captain Ian Vernon Pyott DSO

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Capt. Ian Pyott DSO

Ian Pyott was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on August 31, 1895. He grew up in Port Elizabeth. He was educated at Grey High School, South Africa and Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Scotland, returning to South Africa after completing his education here he trained as a miller in the family owned ‘Pyott Limited’ business.

At the outbreak of hostilities which was to become World War 1, Ian Pyott returned to England in February 1916, enlisting in the Machine Gun Corps ‘MGC (Tanks)’. He transferred into the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) three months later in June, after attending flying school, he was posted to 36 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight, based at Seaton Carew and assigned to fly a two-seater Royal Aircraft Factory BE 2c, No 2738 biplane.

Little did he know that in a couple of months he was about to become one of the heroes of the war.  He was about to meet a German Zeppelin airship on a high altitude night bombing raid, November 27, 1916, designated number L-34.

Two groups of Zeppelin airships set out from Germany to bomb England that fateful night, with the first group of five ships crossed into England near Scarborough while the second group of four flew toward the Tyne River mouth.

Zeppelin L-34 was massive, 148 metres long and a diameter of about 15 meters (on average).

Lt. Ian Pyott was flying out of Seaton Carew aerodrome, he was on his second patrol of the night. Tasked with looking for Zeppelin airships and destroying them, he took off at 10.30pm and although his BE 2C normally carried an observer he flew solo this time, this  weight saving allowed him more fuel and therefore more flying time.

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L34 Caught in Search-Lights

L-34 crossed the coastline into England in the neighbourhood of Blackhalls, a handful of miles north of Hartlepool.  Turning Southwards towards Tees it was spotted and searchlights brought to bear on it.  Once spotted L-34 immediately started dropping bombs in an attempt to neutralise the search-lights.   In all it dropped 13 bombs near Elwick – a little village just west from West Hartlepool.  The bombing proved ineffectual with minimum damage on the ground (two cows were injured).

Now under attack from anti-aircraft fire L-34 turned seawards ​passing over the thickly populated area of West Hartlepool. At this stage Lt. Pyott had been in the air for 1 hour when he saw the Zeppelin heading in his direction.

He reported that he was at 9800 feet and the Zeppelin was a couple of hundred feet below him, he attacked the Zeppelin at right angles to the middle of the airship, firing all the way and then flying underneath it. The airship turned east and Pyott and the Zepplin’s machine gunners dueled for about 5 more miles.  Eventually Pyott got some tracer rounds into left side of the Zepplin’s envelope and the Zepplin was rapidly engulfed in frames.  On fire, it continued east over Hartlepool, broke in half and plunged nose first into the Trees river mouth.

The virtually instantaneous combustion of 45,000 cubic metres of hydrogen on board used to inflate the airship ensured there were no survivors, only two bodies were found, the rest sadly incinerated or lost.

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Death of L 34

Shooting down a Zeppelin was a very big deal in World War 1, they were heavily armed, flew at incredibly high altitudes for the day and very formidable.  When Pyott landed, all the members of his base ran out to cheer him, he promptly collapsed, not due to injury, but because he was frozen stiff from fighting at such a high altitude.  They took him from the cockpit and carried him aloft on their shoulders in victory, taking him off to warm up no doubt.

Following the victory Ian Pyott was to become a national hero, wined and dined by the British elite.

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Lt. Ian Pyott besides the BE 2c he was piloting when he shot down Zeppelin L34

Just over a week later, 15th December 1916, it was announced in the press that Pyott had been awarded a ‘Companion of the Distinguished Service Order’ (DSO), in part his citation read “in recognition of conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty connection with the destruction of an Enemy Airship”.

Pyott was also promptly promoted to Captain. His proud father, the Bakery owner of Pyotts Limited in Port Elizabeth, sailed from South Africa to be present when King George V presented Capt. I.V. Pyott his DSO at Buckingham Palace.

488658_c201ce2a008c406ca35dc5c7993f99d3~mv2Such a big deal was made of this victory, that a special commemorative coin was even stamped to celebrate Capt. Pyott’s actions and resultant DSO.  Zeppelins were so feared by the British public they were branded ‘Baby Killers’ as the bombing of civilians carried with it such a public outrage. The commemorative medal carried Capt Ian Pyott’s profile, the year and the letters DSO, it was presented to him at Hendon Aerodrome in England by none other than General Jan Smuts.

But there was more to come from this very brave South African. He was again Mentioned in Despatches (London Gazette 25 January 1917), whilst subsequently serving with No 55 Squadron on the Western Front. He also claimed another air victory on 23 April 1917 while returning from a bombing raid, a formation from No 55 Squadron was attacked by nine hostile aircraft that dived upon them. Pyott and his observer, 2nd Lt A D Taylor, in DH4 A2147, claimed an German Albatros scout plane over Boue.

Marlene Dietrich

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Marlene Dietrich

So where does the Hollywood Superstar actress and singer, Marlene Dietrich, fit into all of this?  Simply put the Commander of Zeppelin L-34 on that fateful night in September 1916, was Marlene’s uncle.

Kapitanleutnant Max Dietrich commanded Zeppelins in his short career, and was regarded as a particularly experienced commander, in all he had a total of 41 sorties in Zeppelins.  Because only two bodies were recovered from L-34, Marlene and her family lived for a little time in the hope that Max Dietrich could somehow have survived.

She said of the incident,

“We knew the Zeppelins had gone out on an errand of war, but we did not know their destination. My uncle never came back. My aunt was broken-hearted, but she would not believe her husband had really gone. She insisted that he would come back. But the years passed, and there was no news. At last she lost hope and bowed to the hand of fate. It is very sad but of course, in Ger­many my Uncle Max was mourned as a hero. He gave his life for his country”.

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Max Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich, was born in Berlin and came from a strong military family. She was a Hollywood superstar actress and singer who held both German and American citizenship.  Her performance as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international fame. Marlene Dietrich starred in many Hollywood films, significantly Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Desire (1936).

During World War 2, she became the ‘darling’ for both British and German troops, whilst holding this rather unique position she recorded a popular German love song by Lale Andersen called ‘Lili Marleen’ in English, it was done as a morale boost for American, British and Commonwealth troops and it became an instant hit.

marlylyEspecially for the South Africans, The song was published in South Africa in a wartime leaflet, with an anonymous English translation, as ‘Lili Marleen: The Theme Song of the Eighth Army and the South African 6th Armoured Division’ (quite ironically).

In a wonderful turn of fate, it was not unusual in the Second World War for British, American and South African troops to be heard singing along to the English version of Lili Marleen on a record player and for German troops to be singing along to her German version on the opposite lines within hearing distance of one another.

Romany Creams

So how do Romany creams fit into this story?  Well, after the war our hero Capt. Ian Pyott returned to South Africa and took up a position in his Dad’s bakery business.

John Pyott died in 1947. His other son, Robert, became Chairman and held this position until his death in 1964. During this period, the decision was made to concentrate solely on biscuits and from October 1949, Pyott Limited thus specialised, enabling it to increase its biscuit range even further. Following Robert Pyott’s death, his brother, our Zeppelin shooting hero, Ian Pyott, was appointed to the position of Chairman and Managing Director.

The early 50s saw the beginning of the fight for market share between the three major competitors in the biscuit industry – Bakers, Baumanns and Pyotts.

Under Ian Pyott, in mid 1965, Pyott Limited collaborated with Cadbury’s Chocolates in Port Elizabeth to produce a chocolate variation of a traditional English treat known as “Gypsy creams”, which consisted of two round-topped biscuits sandwiched together with a creamy white filling. Gypsy Creams were not a very big seller for any of the British manufacturers.

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 18.20.47Innovative as ever, the biscuit part was shaped the same as for “Gypsy Creams”, but the biscuit part (referred to as the shell) was improved and it was sandwiched with a chocolate filling instead, no doubt provided by Cadbury’s Chocolates.

The line immediately proved a winner.  They chose the name “Romany” to carry the ‘Gypsy’ connotation across from Gypsy Creams (named after the Romany travelling community).

Bakers Ltd then made a competitive product and called it Tuscany Creams, but it was Pyott’s Romany Creams that really held the market.

In 1969, Ian Pyott, was now getting old and he resigned from the position of Managing Director of Pyott Limited. He died shortly afterward in 1972 whilst the company was been sold to Nabisco Inc.  Many buy-outs and takeovers later, what was Pyott Limited found itself part of the Anglovaal Industries Group.

In 1994 Bakers, Pyotts and Baumanns were regrouped under the collective title of “Associated Biscuits”. In 1996, the member companies of National Brands Ltd. (NBL) were combined into a single company. This transformation included combining Willards with Associated Biscuits to form the Biscuit and Snack Division of National Brands.

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Today, the familiar Pyott’s logo on Romany Creams has been replaced with their old competitor’s logo – the Baker’s logo. The range of flavours has expanded and the packaging design has changed, but the ‘original’ flavour chocolate Romany Creams developed by one dapper, Zeppelin shooting South African fighter pilot and war hero, Capt. Ian Pyott DSO, are still the best seller.

In Conclusion

I’ll bet the modern Marketing Managers at National Brands have little to no idea of the heritage this product has. Wouldn’t it be nice, if in the centenary of the end of WW1, that a special commemorative packaging be designed to Capt. Ian Pyott DSO and his legacy re-presented to a South African public largely unaware of the WW1 heroes this country has, and what they have given to the country.

I hope you have munched your way through the entire packet of Romany Creams by now and richer in chocolate and sugar no doubt, but you also are much richer in the knowledge now that you bitten into the type of fantastic journey South African military history has to offer. History that often lies so hidden away because seismic political events in South Africa have over-taken it.  Think of it as a ‘secret filling’ that will make for an interesting titbit to impress your friends with, next time the Romany Creams appear on a coffee table.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens

Enjoyed this, have a look at another famous South African military history treat, the Hertzoggie vs. the Smutsie.

‘Bake-off’ South African style!


My sincere thanks to Sandy Evan Hanes for pointing out this interesting golden thread to me.  References: Wikipedia, Shooting Down of Zeppelin L-34 by Ivor Markman.   On-line discussion forums.  South African Legion Facebook group forum.