VE – Day’s flags of honour

8th May 1945 – Victory In Europe Day, also known as VE – Day – the war in Europe is declared over. VE Day is a day to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces.

Just a few days before the designated ‘VE-Day’ on 4 May 1945 just east of Hamburg, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, Commander of the 21st Army Group accepted the unconditional surrender of key German forces in Western Europe.

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The surrender preceded the end of World War 2 in Europe, which was later signed in a tent at Montgomery’s HQ on the Timeloberg hill at Wendisch Evern. A second German Instrument of Surrender ahead of the official ending World War 2 in Europe was signed on 7 May at Reims in France and signed again on 8 May with the Supreme High Command of the Red Army (Soviet Union), French and United States representatives in Berlin.

The 8th of May was declared as VE – Day, and an intensely proud day celebrated by the Allies the world over followed, including South Africa (Russia celebrates it the day after on the 9th).  The ‘V for Victory’ sign used to drive support for the Allied cause throughout the war made a full appearance everywhere, and so did the great nation’s flags who had fought so hard, and with such sacrifice to get to this day.

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If you examine the picture of Whitehall closely, all the key nations in support and Allied with Great Britain, massive flags proudly flown from Whitehall next to one another – they included the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the Soviet Union.

In sequence the flags of the key commonwealth countries who had committed so much in resources, people and lives are also seen, these included Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa, and you can see it here, the ‘Orange, White and Blue’ flag of the Union.

Winston Churchill appeared in Whitehall on he Ministry of Heath balcony to address the masses of people assembling there, in part be said;

11050253_445187798984291_7988015998947365041_n“I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.”

His views were echoed by King George VI when Winston Churchill appeared alongside him,  the Queen mother and a young Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen Elizabeth II) in her uniform.  She had joined the war effort as a subaltern in the women’s Women’s Auxiliary Territorial ServiceKing George said;

“I thank with a full heart those who bore arms so valiantly on land and sea, or in the air; and all civilians who, shouldering their many burdens, have carried them unflinchingly without complaint.”

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What followed was two solid days of partying in central London and the world over.  It had been South Africa’s war too, and South Africans were right at the centre of this massive party in London  – and rightly so. This still from colour film footage shows the street party and general revelling at Piccadilly Circus in London – and it’s marked by some South Africans in the centre proudly waving the South African Union national flag and rejoicing the end of the war in Europe.

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Some people (in fact many) in South Africa would say, oh no not THAT flag (referring the Orange, White and Blue or ‘OBB’)!  But that is to completely misunderstand what this flag meant to the world in 1945 and not 1994.

The South African Union flag was the flag of Smuts’ Union and not really the preferred flag of Malan’s Republic, in fact between Verwoed and Vorster both had proposed re-designing the South African Union flag in line with their ideologies and those of the ‘Republic’ state they created and not Smuts’ despised ‘Union’ (many in Nationalist caucus literally hated the British Union “Jack’ on the flag, they called it the ‘blood-vlek’ as it reminded them of the sufferings of the Boer nation under the British in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War and wanted it removed); for more on this rather ‘inconvenient’ history of South Africa’s national flags see the link at the end of this article.

In fact it’s a great pity the Apartheid government didn’t follow through with their endeavours to change the flag in 1961 and 1971 respectively, when they drove at issue of the Republic they created.  In 1945, South Africa was a Union and a Dominion in the British Commonwealth and this flag, along with Smuts as Head of State was honoured and highly respected the world over, especially at the end of World War 2.

At the time the South African Union flag stood for the almighty sacrifice of South Africans and Jan Smuts’ call to fall behind the Allied nations to rid the world of Nazi and Fascist tyranny. A war against what Smuts referred to as Hitler’s ‘Crooked Cross’ (swastika) an unchristian ideology and heinous symbology.

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The South African Union Flag in 1945 also stood for freedom and victory over ‘violence and tyranny’ as Churchill had aptly referred to in his speech on VE Day, at the time it stood firmly behind this ideal and was flown proudly. That the flag was to be carried over and soiled by the Nationalists and their Apartheid ideology after the war from 1948 and now stands as a symbol of ‘hate’ is unfortunate history.

Old flags have their place, and the South African Union flag should have ended with the Union in 1961 as it symbolised that time, with all its own ups and downs and its own forms of ‘race’ politics, but also its greatest achievement which won it high acclaim – and that was ‘VE-Day’, the Union epoch was in fact very different to the Apartheid epoch in just about every respect.  Also lets face it the Nationalists didn’t bathe themselves in glory with a pinnacle of achievement anywhere close to ‘VE – Day’.

Also,  South Africa is also not alone in this line-up at Whitehall in VE Day of having its flag changed – the flags of the Soviet Union, India and Canada all changed in the wake of new politics and social orders after World War 2.

In any event, we stand on the 8th May and remember Smuts’ South African Union and the lofty role it performed in bringing peace and freedom to the world in 1945, a ‘little country’ by comparison standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest men and super-powers in the world, on an occasion that changed the destiny of almost every country around the world.  A day many South Africans stood with their heads held high and applauded the world over.

12549123_10153755844686480_5840912786017399781_nA beacon of fire symbolising this freedom was lit in Trafalgar Square on VE – Day, by a bunch of very happy and inebriated Canadian servicemen burning war bond advertising boards, it burned so bright, so strong and was so hot it cracked a part of the granite base of Nelson’s Column, a subtle reminder to this day, if you look carefully, to the sheer magnitude of the occasion and what it meant to a relieved and ecstatic British public, Commonwealth and Allied nations and the world at large.

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In conclusion, this short Associated Press news reel captures VE-Day perfectly:

Related Work

The South African National Flag; The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

Churchill’s Heroes; Churchill’s Desk


Written by Peter Dickens.  Reference and thanks to the ‘British and Commonwealth Forces’ Facebook page.  Image of Churchill at Whitehall from the Imperial War Museum. Video commercial copyright Associated Press.

Churchill’s idols; Napoleon, Nelson &…Smuts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horatio Nelson

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

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

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

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

That is why Nelson sits on Churchill’s desk.

Napoleon Bonaparte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why Napoleon sits on Churchill’s desk.

Jan Smuts

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

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

So, nothing in common as friends go then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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General Jan Smuts in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related work and Links

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

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

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


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

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

 

How South Africa forged Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.

Boys_Own_Magazine_Feb_1855Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.

It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.

So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.

Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly happened).  On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.

Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’

Young Churchill

Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow

To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother.  Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.

Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.

Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger.  His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.

True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nIt a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war.  The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly.  The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.

The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.

Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.

Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’.  Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.

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Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899

In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”

Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect.  Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899).  In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.

Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.

They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban.  This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.

Capture 

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.

The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.

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The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in

As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day).  He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.

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Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux

After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.

Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed.  So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).

In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out.  Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.

Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’.  Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”.  The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.

With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately.  The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.

Passing Majuba 

Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think.  Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).

As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.

Mjuba

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

This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity.  The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.

How history twists 

In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha.  Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’

Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.

In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.

Prisoner of War

Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.

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Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image

So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence.  Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.

“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.

Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’

In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape.  He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.

He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst  of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.

In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters).  They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines.  After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day.  Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.

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Churchill’s departing note

On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:

 “… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”

‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.

Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience.  He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.

So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape.  The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food.  The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.

On the ‘run’

Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype).  In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria.  He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home.  He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.

Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).  When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.

He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide.  A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep.  He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.

His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy.  On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken.  But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house.  Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.

Winstons Wanted Poster

Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster

Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke.  The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!

Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.

The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill.  It read:

“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”

Throwing the dice 

Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door.  His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.

The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers.  Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.

At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause.  The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.

On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”.  He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.

The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other.  Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then.  He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”

Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British.  His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.

‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!

John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move.  They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.

Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats.  On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill.  In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December.  Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.

Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety.  Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose.  Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.

What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.

Do you know who I am?

In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out.  Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.

Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate.  He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it.  Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’

At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.

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Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)

Becoming a ‘Caesar’

In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer.  His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldiering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine.  So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not.  In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.

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Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse

With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse.  In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.

Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded.  The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.

This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war.  At near starvation they were emancipated.  They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.

Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”.  His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.

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British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.

He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900.  He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar.  He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards.  The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.

14516334_10154528497944476_6692268421857196301_nAfter the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire.  He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.

A future fan base

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Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904

There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters.  But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.

What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban.  In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.

Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.

He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.

In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.

In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.

You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.

A fall from Grace

With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.

Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front.  This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.

The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.

In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”

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Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair

Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.

Destiny 

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.

It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.

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Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)

Related Works and Links

Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

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

Winston Churchill and Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Winston Churchill and Smuts; Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts

My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.

Smuts Barracks; Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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RTR at Smuts Barracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan Smuts

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

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

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

Related work and links

Jan Smuts: A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts

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


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

The day the SAAF nearly killed Jan Smuts

Not a lot of people know this, but the South African Air Force (SAAF) nearly killed General Jan Smuts in a ‘Blue on Blue’ incident – military speak for when you fire on your own forces. The incident also says a lot of Jan Smuts’ character – so what happened?

Prior to the war, Oswald Pirow was the Defence Minister under the Hertzog regime, he was also a key player in the establishment of South African Airways (SAA).  As an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany and the Nazi cause himself he had a keen relationship with Nazi Germany.  He toured Germany on military inspections,  also buying German military hardware on a number of occasions.  As a result  both SAA and the SAAF at the beginning of the war found themselves equipped with German-made aircraft.

One particular aircraft was a German-made bomber made by Junkers, and it was used by both Axis forces in World War 2 and by South African forces – it was the Ju-86.  The difference between the two were slight adaptations and markings.

East African Campaign

At the onset of Word War 2, the South African Air Force’s 1 Squadron moved north in May 1940 for operations against the Italians in East Africa, 6 Hawker Fury fighter aircraft were part of the unit’s equipment.  Arriving in Mombasa, Kenya in June 1940, 6 ex-RAF Fury Is were added to their equipment that August, with 16 more arriving between October and January 1941.

On October 27, 1940, the Furies first saw combat for the first time when 4 Italian Ca.133s from 8 Gruppo, and 25 Squadriglia, attacked their airfield.

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SAAF 1 Squadron Hawker Fury

During October, 2 Squadron was formed out of 1 Squadron, with 9 Furies. On October 31, Hawker Furies from this unit came very close to shooting down two SAAF Ju-86s carrying some very important VIP’s travelling to the SAAF air-base to consult on South Africa’s conduct in the war to date.  The VIP’s included General Jan Smuts (South Africa’s Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief), Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, Major General Alan Cunningham, and Major General Galmen-Austen.  So here is what happened.

Blue and Blue

Within twelve hours of arriving at Nairobi, General Smuts, General Cunningham and the Chief of the South African General Staff were on their way by road to Gilgil, here they were given a rousing reception by 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group whose troops were inspected by General Smuts before his party lunched in the Brigade Officers’ Mess. The party then drove on to Nakuru airfield to meet Lieutenant-Colonel S.A. Melville and men of No. 1 Bomber Brigade and 40 Squadron, SAAF.

On 31 October 1940 General Smuts’ party left at sunrise, not in the Lodestar they arrived in but in a Junkers 86 bomber of the South African Air Force piloted by Captain D. B. Raubenheimer and accompanied by a second Junkers 86 carrying war correspondents, the formation also included a Dragon Rapide and an escort of two Hurricanes.

The aircrafts were making straight for Garba Tulla but changed course because General Smuts had been specially asked to fly over Archer’s Post airfield, headquarters of No. 11 Bomber Squadron, SAAF.

Later on 31 October 1940 the  South African Air Force Ju-86 bomber/transports carrying the VIP contingent did not follow specified procedures to identify themselves as ‘friendly’, as they passed over Archer’s Post. The formation did not signal the specified recognition signal, which consisted of lowering the undercarriage and waggling the wings.

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SAAF Ju-86

Under the impression that the formation was Italian, three SAAF Hawker Furies of 2 Squadron’s ‘D’ detachment, led by Captain J. Meaker, were scrambled and intercepted the formation.

Captain Meaker brought his formation into position quickly and closed to open fire on the bombers. As he manoeuvred to engage the right hand aircraft he noticed that it had twin rudders and climbed slightly to look at its markings, which he immediately recognised. He pulled up and away to the right, but Lieutenant Doug Pannell, flying on his leader’s starboard side, took this to indicate that Captain Meaker had finished his attack.

Meaker had no radio so could not warn the other two Fury that they were SAAF aircraft and he watched in horror as Lt. Pannell went in on attack and opened fire, Pannell only realised his mistake as he broke away.

The pilot of the third Fury did not open fire, and fortunately the Junkers was not shot down.

The Ju-86 aircraft were painted green, still in their original Luftwaffe colour. All SAAF Ju-86 had a 600 series number had a solid nose cone.  They however carried the distinctive South African Orange White and Blue markings and the British and Commonwealth roundel scheme.

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SAAF Ju-86

Close Call

When they landed 8 bullet holes were found in the fuselage and wing root of the SAAF Ju-86 Smuts was flying in, one of the bullets had even passed between Jan Smut’s legs.   In Smuts’ typical stoic, calm and implacable nature he even made light of the entire incident and there were no recriminations to the SAAF pilots involved.

Smuts had been in two previous wars, the 2nd Anglo Boer War and the 1st World War, it was not the first time he had come under fire and he understood the hazardous nature of warfare, his horse had even been shot out from under him Moodernaar’s Poort during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

Later in the Second World War the SAAF aircraft fleet was modernised somewhat and equipped with more distinctive Allied Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, Smuts was to regularly use an American made Lockheed Lodestar when visiting South African troops on the ground and air-bases.

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Field Marshal Smuts standing in front of the aircraft in which he made his flying visits. It was an ex-South African Airways Lockheed Lodestar, which retained its natural metal finish when it became No 234 of the South African Air Force. IWM Copyright

In Conclusion

There are still some Afrikaners in the South African conservative right who would wish that the SAAF had indeed killed Jan Smuts, but in truth is he was a very popular World War 2 leader.  His popularity did not only extend the Allied forces, mainly British, American and other Commonwealth countries, it also extended to South African forces involved in World War 2 and domestically, especially amongst white volunteers fighting the war, half of which were of Afrikaner extract.

Smuts’ contribution to the outcome of the Second World War is immeasurable, his membership of the Imperial War Cabinet and his position as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor went a long way to winning the war for the Allies.  An early death of Smuts would have had ramifications on how the war was fought and won.

It also remains a fact that even after the war when Smuts still maintained a high degree of popularity domestically, and when he lost the General Election to the Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948, he still commanded a majority vote from the white electorate and only lost the election on a constitutional seat basis.

Related work

Oswald Pirow; South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow

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

Jan Smuts; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens,  with thanks and contribution from Sandy Evan Hanes and Warren Williamson.  References include ‘Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness’ by Richard Steyn,  Image copyright of Smuts next to Lockheed – Imperial War Museum, Image of SAAF Ju-86 courtesy Tinus Le Roux’s SAAF Legends website.

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

Jan Smuts

Jan Christian Smuts by Marie Vermeulen Breedt

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

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

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

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The Smuts Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Related Work and links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The ‘Devil’s Box’

Ever the scientific mind, Jan Smuts inspects a television camera just after World War 2 (cira 1948/9). Knowing Smuts’ he would have fully embraced this new medium given his nature and inquisitive mind, his opposition the National Party saw television very differently – they called it the ‘devils box’ and feared it would unleash corruption of the mind.

Their staunch National Christian principles demanded that television not be brought to South Africa and they resisted the introduction of television until 1976 – nearly 30 years after most the world embraced the technology. Rhodesia introduced TV in 1960 and Rhodesians though South Africa an oddity with no gambling and no TV.

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Dr Albert Hertzog

Dr. Albert Hertzog, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the time, said that TV would come to South Africa “over [his] dead body,” denouncing it as “only a miniature bioscope which is being carried into the house and over which parents have no control.”

He also argued that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make Africans dissatisfied with their lot.” The new medium was then regarded as the “devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality”.

The issue of whether to bring television to South Africa was back on the Parliamentary debate when South Africa was about the only country in the advanced world to completely miss Neil Armstrong’s famous worlds and landing on the moon – beamed live on TV to planet earth (except, inter-alia – South Africa) in 1969.  The moon landing and live Apollo missions to the moon into the mid 1970’s had sealed television as the primary media mouthpiece of the foreseeable future – it could simply no longer be ignored.

In 1971, the National Party appointed a “Commission of Inquiry into Matters Relating to Television”, headed by Piet Meyer, chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond and later of the SABC. itself.  A majority of its members, of whom nine were Broederbond members, recommended that a television service be introduced, provided that “effective control” was exercised “to the advantage of our nation and country”.

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Still taken from ‘Television in Action’ the first Test Broadcast in 1975 which used the SADF as a subject.

Instead of fearing the advancement of communication via television, the National Party now embraced the power of television to mould the nation’s mind in favour their prevailing political narrative – if it was very carefully censored and controlled by the state.  Albeit that they were still very wary as is seen here is John Vosters’ opening speech on the first broadcast on the 5th January 1976.

In the English part of his short bilingual address BJ Vorster went on to say.

‘After years of thorough preparations, we have now reached the stage where television becomes a part of our daily lives,’ Vorster explained. ‘… It is still too early to say or even to predict what influence it is going to have on our daily lives. But what is clear, is that we are dealing with a medium that, as it has already been experienced by all other countries, can have a powerful influence, whether for good or for bad.’

Vorster then outlined his vision for South African television:

The approach should still be that we want to use the medium to provide fresh and correct information, and healthy entertainment, and to be part of the education of the nation … Objectivity and balance should still be our keyword. It is a big task, not only to bring the world to South Africa, but also (and perhaps especially) to show South Africa to the world as it is in its rich diversity and everything it has to offer.

The possibility of using television as a government propaganda tool was thus clear from the beginning. When TV was finally introduced is was very limited to a handful of hours at night for many years split equally between English and Afrikaans and heavily censored and controlled with heavy religious and Afrikaner nationalist cultural content.

Broadcasting started and ended with a Christian Bible reading and prayer which was then concluded with the playing of the national anthem before switching to the ever-present ‘test pattern’.

hqdefaultSunday broadcasts were dominated by a NG Church service streamed onto television and Afrikaans entertainment hours were dominated by ‘Boeremusik’ programming and showcasing ‘boere-orchestras’ and smiliar music shows.  The only news channel was ‘SABC’ News – which was very carefully managed.

In 1976, despite initially denying involvement of the SADF in Angola, world media and soldiers and their families themselves could no longer keep it a secret.  To take the high ground the National Party was very quick to jump on the TV bandwagon to publish a very politically and factually skewed ‘docu-drama’ in 1976 called ‘Brug 14’ to paint the forces of good (SADF) against the forces of evil (Cuban Communism) as an early foray into using the SABC as a propaganda tool.  It proved very successful and set the bench for docu-drama’s and documentaries to come.

By 1978, the British Actors’ Equity ban was extended to television programmes recorded on film.  The ban had first been put on South Africa in the 1960s in protest against Apartheid policies, and stated that Equity members would not perform in South Africa if they were not allowed to play to multi-racial audiences. When the boycott was extended to television, it meant that programmes using a performance by any Equity member could not be broadcast over South African television. This created difficulties in the procurement of shows from overseas, as Britain was an important source of material.

Ever resourceful to keep the ‘business as usual’ sanitised approach, the SABC managed to find their way around the ban by importing programmes from other countries and even by adapting British programmes, for example the animated children’s programme, Rupert the Bear. To get around the ban, the SABC dubbed the programme from English into English, as it originally featured performances by Equity voice artists.

Only by 1982 was television opened up to other languages and cultures, and Black South African audiences could finally enjoy some ‘sanitised’ content aimed at them. ‘Independent’ television from state-owned control – M-Net – was only finally launched in 1986, and only on the proviso that they were not allowed to have a news channel.  It was to be an entertainment channel only, the Nationalists continued to maintain a heavy grip on what South African’s could and could not see by way of how the Apartheid experiment was getting along.

cb_logo_defaultIn 1988, M-Net, keen on doing some kind of news actuality programming, found its way around the ‘no news channel’ clause with the launch of Carte Blanche (meaning ‘anything goes’) a once a week ‘Investigative journalism’ program which they billed as ‘entertainment’.  It is still South Africa’s only real source of real unbiased local TV news broadcasting having uncovered many of South Africa’s most famous scandals of human rights abuse, corruption and consumer affairs.

Very often, this website – The Observation Post, comes under criticism whenever it is mentioned that the Nationalist system skewed history or news or went about covering up tracks – one only has to cast your mind back to the heavy state control of media, especially mass media and the ‘blackout’ of anything broadcasted on a national basis which would counteract state policy.

South Africans were fed a careful diet of Nationalist Afrikaner dogma for decades, and as a result either have limited or no knowledge of our own contemporary history or if we do have some idea it is often connected with an equally skewed state ‘National Christian’ education policy and it is very biased and often very incorrect.

To get more in-depth as to this ‘influence’ on the general mindset of South Africans living under Apartheid, this documentary ‘SABC 20 years – the untold story’ is a must watch, it  looks at the start up of television in South Africa in 1976 and the manner in which it was directly controlled by the Nationalist Party Government to propagate Apartheid ideology.

Given the modern power of state-owned broadcasters and the advent of ‘fake-news’ in our current political narrative, with the SABC now firmly in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC), the ANC have proved themselves to be no different to the old ‘Nats’, as this powerful medium is once again wielded in favour of the prevailing political narrative – this time it’s all about ‘Black African nationalism’ and no longer ‘Afrikaner nationalism’.

The ANC have indeed learned from the previous ‘masters’ as to the power of manipulating TV media to mould the mind of the nation and we as a ‘rainbow’ nation of South Africans still await a truly politically uninfluenced free to air news channel, a full quarter of a decade into ‘true’ democracy later.

The ANC have even gone as far as launching their very own ’24 hour news’ channel in the form of ANN7 owned by the Gupta family which so blatantly biased towards ANC doctrine and their own news information it’s shameful.

In this sense Dr. Albert Hertzog was dead right – it is indeed the ‘Devil’s Box’ but as has been proved – it very much depends on whose Devil is in control of it.

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Written by Peter Dickens, references and extracts from Wikipedia and ‘Television Comes to South Africa’ published by the University of Pretoria  – Bevan, C (2008).  Cartoon copyright Zapiro.  “SABC TV 20 YEARS – the untold story” 1996 copyright Kevin Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prelude to The Battle of El Alamein

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

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

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

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

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General Erwin Rommel (centre) with his staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1st Battle of El Alamein

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

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

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

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

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

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General Dan Pienaar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Change in British Command

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2nd Battle of El Alamein 

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

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

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

Operation Lightfoot – Break-in

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Start Line Deployments for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lucas Majozi DCM

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

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

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

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

Crumbling Operations

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

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

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

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

Operation Supercharge – Break Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loss of General Dan Pienaar

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

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

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

The End of the Beginning

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

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Memorial to South Africans at El Alamein Commonwealth Cemetery

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

“The first test of a truly great man is in his humility”.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian social thinker once said: “I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility” and it’s a truism or a trait found in all great leaders, and it is also found in Jan Smuts.

A visit today to the Smuts House Museum in Irene as a guest of Philip Weyers (Jan Smuts’ great grandson) revealed a small personal insight into Jan Smuts, and it reinforces the frugal and humble person Smuts was – a God-fearing  man of simple needs.

In the modern context, it also reveals the massive divide between the modern African leaders in Southern Africa with their excessive appetite for hedonism and wealthy trappings from those of yesteryear’s leaders in South Africa.

Jan Smuts’ personal room in the museum has been left almost as is from the day he sat on his bed and keeled over from a heart attack aged 80 – the only thing missing are some small paintings of his children which are in the museum’s trust.

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Jan Smuts’ bedroom at Smuts House in Irene

To think, a small wooden single bed and a wooden cabinet taken from a SAAF Lodestar transport aeroplane made up his personal private possessions – in a house that is made completely of corrugated iron (walls and roof) and was a transportable officers mess and military headquarters (with no insulation whatsoever).

But that’s not where Smuts’ frugality stopped, he didn’t even like sleeping in his ‘comfy’ bedroom – no, in summer he preferred to sleep on the ‘stoep’ (Porch) just outside his bedroom on an even smaller iron camp bed, with even less trappings.

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Jan Smuts’ preferred bed on the ‘stoep’

He enjoyed the smell of the ‘veld,’ an outdoorsman who saw the greater beauty in the natural South African bush and enjoyed being at ‘whole’ with it, it was also here that he was closest with his God  – and it was here, that as an Afrikaner he demonstrated what a true African he was.

Now, compare that to the ‘golden handshakes’ in the millions of Dollars to a recently disposed Zimbabwean African despot so he can live in comfort.

Compare it even to the ‘golden handshakes’ given to the outgoing National Party ministers in 1994 as they ran for the hills with ‘immunity’ cards and set up multi million Rand retirement homes on the Garden Route (the National Party was Smuts’ nemesis – and for good reason).

Compare it even to South Africa’s current political elite who have raided the state coffers and commissioned homes with ‘fire-pools’ and multi-million Rand ‘security’ accommodations, or shuffled taxpayers money overseas to buy multi-million dollar mansions in ‘tax free’ Dubai.

It is fantastic to take perspective and history offers us some wonderful hindsight, and the opportunity to praise from our heroes those attributes attributed to great men – like humility.  To read more of Jan Smuts an understand just what a truly remarkable man and South African he was – please visit this Observation Post by clicking the link:  “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

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General Jan Smuts


Written and researched by Peter Dickens, photo copyright Karen Dickens – with special thanks to Philip Weyers.

Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

Come November, just about every BBC or Sky broadcast shows presenters diligently wearing a Poppy on his or her lapel.  Just about every International English-speaking Celebrity is openly sporting the Poppy.  In the United Kingdom the ‘Poppy Season’ (first two weeks of November) finds the Islands sinking under a weight of paper and plastic poppies. Similarly in Canada, any South African living in or visiting Canada finds themselves knee-deep in poppies.

The two big driving organisations behind this poppy craze in the United Kingdom and Canada respectively is the Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion.  Simply put, the ‘Poppy’ is the ‘intellectual property’ of the ‘Legion’ (and its even copyrighted) – and is the major vehicle used to raise funds for war veteran support.  Patriotic Brits and Canadians get behind their armed forces and the armed forces community and support them to the hilt by buying a poppy – millions of Pounds and Dollars are raised.  But what of South Africa, where do they fit in?

Step in The South African Legion.  Yes, believe it or not, we have our own “Legion” and it is related to The Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion as part of an international Legion brotherhood.  It too has the ‘Poppy’ as its ‘Intellectual property’ and it shares a mutual history – so where’s the link?

The Root

Simply put it was South Africa which was the epicentre that brought all these organisations under a singular umbrella.  Cape Town was the original ‘glue’ that bound the Legions together, we as South Africans can stand proud that it is our country which created this unique world-wide link.

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This historic photo was taken in Cape Town when the Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League RCEL was formed (then known as the British Empire Services League BESL) in 1921. The three founders – Field Marshal Haig (left) went on from this meeting to start what is now known as the Royal British Legion and Field Marshal Smuts (centre) and General Lukin (right) went on to start what is now known as the South African Legion.

After suffering the horrors of war in France and Flanders thousands of men who fought on the British side in World War One underwent incredible hardship once they had been discharged from the armed services and returned to civilian life. Realising the serious plight in which men found themselves, these three prominent soldiers : Field Marshall Earl Haig, General the Rt. Hon. J C Smuts and General Sir H T Lukin founded the British Empire Service League (BESL) The inaugural meeting was held in the City Hall, Cape Town on 21 February 1921.

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On the 15 May 1921 Field Marshal Haig returned from the South African BESL conference and founded The British Legion by bringing together four existing organisations – the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers and the Officers’ Association. It was granted a Royal Charter on 29 May 1971 to mark its fiftieth anniversary which gives the Legion the privilege of the prefix ‘Royal’. Earl Haig remained the President of The British Legion until his death.

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Silk Haig Fund Poppy

The ‘Red Poppy’ has an American root.  In 1918 an American lady from the state of Georgia, Mrs. Moina Michael, read John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Field” and was so moved by it that she came up with an idea of making and wearing red poppies on Memorial Day in the United States of America (last Monday in May) to honour those who died serving in the US military during the First World War. She then began selling her silk poppies to raise money for distressed servicemen and their families (The American Legion still continues this legacy to this day).

Madam Guérin from France had been in the United States during the war, raising money and raising American consciousness about the war. She became aware of Mrs. Michael’s red poppies. On her return to France, she emulated Mrs. Michael and made red poppies to raise money for women, children and families affected by the war.

22339613_10155921037656654_7816662684661396688_oThe Poppy entered into The Royal British Legion’s history in the same year as the RCEL was formed in Cape Town – 1921, when Madame Guérin promoted what she termed the ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’ to the British Legion, a day in which all Britain and her empire who took part in Would War One would remember the fallen with the token of the Flanders red poppy.

After taking her idea to Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the British Legion, Madame Guérin’s poppies (made out of silk by the widows and orphans of the devastated areas of France) were distributed on British streets on 11 November 1921 – on the country’s first Poppy Day.  

By the next year – 1922, “Haig’s Fund” was initiated as the central charity to collect and distribute the raised funds and paper poppies started to make their appearance to raise funds for war victims on a national level.

The South African Branch was titled ‘British Empire Service League (South Africa) and it was also formed by joining the ‘Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association’ and the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ (after which the Comrades Marathon is also named see Observation Post. A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon ) .

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On 8 April 1941 in deference to the pro world war two and anti-war factions in the country the name was changed to the ‘South African Legion of the BESL in order to emphasise its South African identity.

Originally in Bloemfontein, the Headquarters moved to Johannesburg in 1942 and is now housed at the Dan Pienaar House in Sandton Johannesburg.  The BESL has since changed its name to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL). In line with this in 1958 the name of the South African Legion was again altered its name, this time to the South African Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Service League (RCEL).

The South African Legion is an active and founding member organisation of the RCEL and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, remained the High Patron of the Legion for many years and this mantle was taken over by his son Prince Andrew, Duke of York took in February 2015.  Queen Elizabeth II remains the Chief Patron of The Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League.

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The aims of the RCEL is to provide care, employment and housing to veterans who have served ‘crown’. In South Africa the Legion was equal to the challenge. It built on the foundation and continued this good work after World War Two. Thousands of men and women have been assisted in all manner of means and this work carries on to-day. Former National Servicemen and those who were part of the Armed Struggle are assisted with advice and direction.

Towards the end of World War Two the Legion launched several housing schemes in various parts of the country, including housing projects for coloured and black soldiers. A large social centre and chapel in Soweto is a good example. When the Government lifted the ban on Black people owning property, veterans living in over 200 homes built by the Legion in the Dube and Moroka districts of Soweto found themselves entitled to acquire their homes on a 99 year leasehold.

The marginalizing of The South African Legion

Many older people will remember a time, when on “Poppy Day” in South Africa (usually the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday) when thousands of South African Legion members with their supporters would ‘sell’ plastic poppies raising funds for veterans in need in just about every major shopping centre all over South Africa.  Some may even remember the Legion visiting their schools and explaining the meaning of the Poppy.  So where is this mass movement now?  It’s a mass movement in the United Kingdom and Canada and has gown from strength to strength, yet this phenomenon in South Africa has waned somewhat – so what happened?

The Legion’s role as South Africa’s official veteran’s body started to erode from 1948 when the National Party came to power in South Africa on its proposals of Apartheid.  At the time the South African Legion boasted the majority of World War 1 and World War 2 as members under its wing.  At the end of World War 2, nearly 40% of the standing South African military was made up of ‘Black’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’ South Africans and many also belonged to the Legion alongside their ‘white’ counterparts.

Many of these veterans took umbrage to the National Party and its new ‘Apartheid’ policy, and especially resisted the National Party’s anti-British stance and its race politics.  In a call by The Torch Commando (a veterans anti-apartheid movement started by ‘Sailor Malan’ which brought veterans from all veterans associations in South Africa under its umbrella), tens of thousands of veterans rose up in protest against the government – including the majority of The South African Legion’s members at the time.

The National Party acted decisively and moved to ban and erode this veterans movement (see Observation Post The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!), and after the demise of The Torch Commando the veterans returned to their origin associations – however the Nationalist government was forever to remain wary of the World War 2 war veterans, and the war veterans themselves remained forever wary of the National Party government.

The Nationalists (and many Afrikaners in the SADF officer class) also began to brand South Africa’s remaining war veterans associations, mainly the South African Legion and The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), as ‘British’ and ‘Unpatriotic ‘ whilst they maintained their ‘British’ links, insignia and heritage.

From the beginning of 1948 the Legion relations with the Nationalists were strained in the extreme. A major clash took place when the Legion reacted strongly in 1956 to the Government’s move to ban Black and Coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.

The Legion was again at loggerheads with the National Party government over the lack of parity with regard to pensions paid out to Black and Coloured veterans.  The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a very long battle.

The government also started to gradually turn off the taps of the supply of veterans to these associations from the newly formatted ‘South African Defence Force’ (SADF) when they completed their service.  Whereas under the old South African Union’ Defence Force (UDF) such a transition when demobilizing was the norm.  If you served in South Africa’s armed forces you were given an automatic membership of the Legion, and many veterans keepsakes from the war often include their ‘Life-time’ membership certificates to the South African Legion, here’s an example of one.

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By the mid 1980’s this link of almost automatically joining demobilised statutory force members to the South African Legion was all but gone.  It was highly unlikely that the old SADF would invite the Legion to a demobilisation briefing to explain the benefits of these new ‘veterans’ joining the Legion, nor would it actively promote the Legion (or the MOTH) to thousands of SADF permanent force members and conscripts as an option for them to ‘find a home’ post service.

The National Party also took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961, and along with sanctions and International isolation, the South African Legion – as a Commonwealth inspired and linked association, found itself floundering in a country whose government had no time for the British and the Commonwealth and its affiliations at all.

Faced with an ageing membership, a divergent view to that of the Apartheid government of the day, a disconnect with the Commonwealth ideals and no ‘new blood’ from the SADF for nearly four decades on end, the Legion (and to a degree the MOTH) gradually started to slip into long-term decline.

A major casualty of all of this was the gradual removal of the ‘Poppy’ as an icon of Remembrance from the general population’s mass consciousness.  Embroiled in race politics where black servicemen were marginalised and events as to Apartheid took greater national precedence, the Poppy took a back seat to the seismic events of the day – and where the movement flourished in other countries, it declined in South Africa.

1994 – Resurgence 

1994 was a significant year in many respects, South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth of Nations and was invited back into the International world.  Almost instantly Queen Elizabeth II visited South Africa to re-kindle the links and in a landmark move, The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Service League (RCEL) decreed that its 75th international convention would again take place in Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela opened the RCEL’s Cape Town convention in 1996 on the 26th February and his speech says everything about the hope held by the world’s veterans associations for South Africa when he said:

“Today we meet on this very same spot where the League was founded as equal citizens of our respective countries, committed to freedom for all without qualification. Although the danger of a world war has not been completely eliminated, we now live in a friendlier world, thanks to the tireless efforts of men and women some of whom are present in this hall.

We are confident that your deliberations will help shape our ongoing efforts to re-build the lives of veterans and dependents of our fallen heroes. As a nation that has just emerged from a war situation, we look towards the South African Legion to locate and assist the affected people. With your help and guidance, we will certainly succeed”. 

President Nelson Mandela

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RCEL 75th Convention – Cape Town 1996

The South African Legion resurged and has since been working very hard to re-establish the Poppy heritage in South Africa and promote itself to the South African veterans community as a ‘non political’ (and non government) veteran association option – both with international links and a proud and very long heritage.

One of the Legion’s major undertakings today is securing pensions for South African post-war disabled servicemen, It also undertakes investigations on behalf of the RCEL in respect of assistance requested by other Commonwealth ex-service personnel who reside in South Africa.

Its been an amazing journey, the South African Legion is part of a worldwide brotherhood of veterans organisations – including the other RCEL founders, from the United Kingdom – The Royal British Legion the Royal Legion Scotland, from Australasia, the Australian Returned Services League (RSL) and the New Zealand Returned Services Association (RSA) and in Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion – and the South African Legion still stands proud in its conjoint history with all these prestigious veterans organisations.

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The Legion has a legacy that is nearly 100 years old, its still the “Primo” (the first) veterans association in South Africa and it has outlived all the political epochs in South Africa.  To date it still holds steady in its mission – beaten down during the Apartheid years but now growing, re-energised and focussed on the future.  With any luck the ‘Remembrance Poppy’ will again find its well-earned place in South African society.

The ‘Centenary’ of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, the 100 year anniversary of its founding in 2021, will again take place in Cape Town – South Africa, and what an honour that will be.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Photo reference South African Military History Society. Content Reference – South African Legion webpage

In the photo caption: Gen. J.C. Smuts (centre) with Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (left) and Maj Gen Sir H.T. Lukin, Commander of 1 South African Infantry Brigade and subsequently Commander of 9 (Scottish) Division (right). Photograph was taken at 1st Conference of the South African Legion of the British Empire Service League, Cape Town (28 February – 4 March 1921). The ranks referred to are those held at the time the photograph was taken.

References ‘Not for Ourselves’ a history of The South African Legion.Leg