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

The featured photograph of Field Marshal Rommel inspecting South African and British Prisoners of War (POW’s) after the fall of Tobruk is very telling of South Africa’s singular biggest capitulation of arms in its proud military history.  Sir Winston Churchill, who rather embarrassingly on his trip to Washington had to hear the news from President Roosevelt, was to famously later write on his feelings about the fall of Tobruk:

“This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were the military effects grim, but it affected the reputation of British arms ……. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.”

So let’s have a look at why this loss of a small North African coastal port in World War 2 affected the British in this way, its ramifications for the British and South Africans, and why Churchill chose such a harsh rebuke of South African military prowess – which prior to Tobruk had been held in high regard and after Tobruk the South African military establishment literally had to fight an uphill battle in Italy to earn their respect again and recover their honour.  In effect we need to ask ourselves if this was indeed a fair comment, so let’s have a look at what actually happened.

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The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, chatting with British Army General Staff Officers during his tour of the Western Desert.

The Rats of Tobruk

The Rats of Tobruk was a nickname given to the soldiers who held the small Libyan port of Tobruk against Rommel’s German ‘Afrika Corps”and their Italian axis forces.  Rommel had laid siege to the port in his push to invade Egypt, these hardened, belligerent  soldiers effectively put Rommel’s plans on hold as they dogmatically dug in and resisted for 8 long months.  The siege started on 10 April 1941 and was only to end later in November 1941.

They consisted of  around 14,000 Australian soldiers from the 9th Australian Division commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, accompanied by regiments of British artillery, the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade and 3rd Indian Motor Brigade – reporting to Australian command.  In all they constituted about 30 000 troops – a very strong garrison.

At the time the port was surrounded by a strong line of defences, the garrison had air support, and Rommel had been at the end of his supply lines. Early Axis attacks were disorganised affairs that were easily fought off, and by the time Rommel was able to launch a stronger assault the defenders were really dug in ready to meet him. The defence of Tobruk became one of the iconic moments of the entire British war effort.

It dominated strategy in the desert in 1941, and the relief of Tobruk was the target of the unsuccessful Operation Brevity and Operation Battleaxe. The siege was finally lifted as a result of Operation Crusader and in the aftermath Rommel was forced to retreat west out of Cyrenaica, ending the year back at his starting point.

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The ‘Rats of Tobruk’ – some of the 15,000 men of General Morshead’s 9th Australian Division shelter in caves during an air raid during the siege of Tobruk. After six months besieged in the vital supply port the Australians were evacuated by sea and relieved by fresh troops. 823 men had been killed, 2214 wounded and 700 captured.

Tobruk was held in hero status and its defenders, the ‘rats’ went into the annuals of history as legends.

South African Honour to defend Tobruk

Tobruk secured, the Australians finally relieved and cycled out, by 1942 the Allied Middle East Command decided to leave a ‘temporary’ force to hold Tobruk while a new strike force was built up near the new frontier – on the Gazala line to the west.

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General Klopper

The ‘honour’ of defending Tobruk was given to the South Africans. The new  garrison was to be formed by the 2nd South African Infantry Division with Major General Hendrik Balzazar Klopper in command.  General H.B. Klopper, was a school teacher before joining the South African Army. He was a Major General of one month’s standing when he was given overall command of Tobruk with limited combat experience.  In all the same number of troops, over 30 000 were given to him to defend Tobruk if attacked, as had been the troop strength with the Australians earlier.  Only with some relatively small but key differences.

Simply put, the defences of Tobruk weren’t as solid in 1942 as they had been in 1941. The main reason for this was that large numbers of mines had been lifted and moved to the Gazala line, as had a great deal of the barbed wire.  The tank traps and anti-tank ditch were also in a very poor state and had begun to silt up with sand.

On the plus side, Maj. General Klopper had at his disposal some fine fighting units and very good equipment, he had his own division, the second South African Infantry Division, as well as some British and Commonwealth detachments – 60 Infantry Tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, three regiments of field artillery and two of medium artillery. There were 35 000 men in total. Tobruk had also now become a major supply base for the Gazala Line, and as a result was also crammed full of stores, ammunition and equipment.

But, again on the down side, unlike the Australians, there was little chance of solid air support for the South Africans, as the Desert Air Force had been forced to retreat to Sidi Barrani, and there were only fifteen 6-pounder anti-tank guns in the fortress.

There was also another very important difference, this time some of the defending troops were exhausted, their morale was lower, and the garrison was filled with a feeling of insecurity and impermanence.  Something later historians would point it out as a failing as General Klopper had not inspired change or adequately dealt with it, other sources point to the relative inexperience of the South African troops, stating that although morale amoungst the South Africans specifically has high, their Commander himself was out of his depth.

The fatal flaw

In terms of the defence perimeter, the Western and Southern sides of the port were well defended by the South Africans, but the East side was weak, and it proved to be fatal.

The eastern perimeter defences were left in a very weak state, and now they were to be defended by mainly Indian regiments reporting to General Kloppers command located in the centre.   The 2/5th Mahrattas and the 2/7th Gurkas were great fighting units and till that point had been involved in the thick of fighting, so they had been pulled to rear to recuperate and these men were utterly exhausted.

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An even more critical flaw in planning was an underestimate of German resolve, by both the Allied command and General Klopper. Erwin Rommel’s was utterly resolved to take Tobruk once and for all, his entire campaign to invade Egypt depended on it, and unlike the earlier siege of Tobruk with its Australian defenders, now he was going to throw just about everything at his disposal into the advance on Tobruk.  He replenished and reinvigorated his forces, consolidated his plans and began his advance east again.

The Desert Fox Attacks 

General Erwin Rommel had a fearsome reputation amongst the Allied Forces and was nicknamed ‘The Desert Fox’ by his enemy because of his skill in manoeuvre and deception, as usual for Rommel he also devised a ruse for capturing Tobruk.

Only his infantry approached the western perimeter, while his mobile forces swept on past, to give the impression that the German and Italian armour was heading straight for the Egyptian border (sending radio messages to that effect to complete the ruse).  He then swung his mobile armoured forces around and attacked Tobruk from its weak point – the eastern perimeter.

Rommel’s zero hour was 05h20 on 20 June 1942. As dawn broke long black lines of tanks, trucks and infantry slowly started to move forward. As it grew louder and closer to Tobruk waves of German Stukas and Ju 88’s aircraft appeared overhead (Rommel pressed every single Axis airplane in service in North Africa into taking Tobruk).

As the heavy artillery began to fire, the planes released their bombs and quickly got out of the way for the next wave, operating a shuttle service between the defence perimeter and El Adem airfield, 10 miles away. They pounded a gap open 600 yards wide. Behind them, under cover of artillery barrage and half-hidden by smoke and dust, German and Italian sappers raced forward to lift mines and bridge the tank traps with tanks and infantry racing through the gaps. As they move forward, they lit green, red and purple flares and the Stukas dropped their bombs just ahead of the advancing, multi-coloured smoke screen while the other planes and artillery blasted the South African rear (the seaward side of the port) with shells and bombs.

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German armour and Rommel encicling Tobruk

The situation inside Tobruk under this juggernaut attack very quickly became very desperate.  It literally became a fight for survival and into the fight went everyone,  including the ‘non combative’ members of The South African Native Military Corps who were given rifles and expected to fight on the front line with everyone else.  As the fight became more and more desperate, three small minesweepers, two of them South African – the HMSAS Bever and HMSAS Parktown were called into port to take on evacuation duties.

Both the Bever and the Parktown acquitted themselves in the highest order whilst under a hail of shelling and bombing – and please feel free to refer to two earlier Observation Posts’ links for an in-depth profile on their brave fight – “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever and The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

Inside Tobruk the situation was chaotic. General Klopper – his Head Quarters now bombed out, his radio and telephone wrecked and his code booked destroyed, lost the last vestige of control.

Left with no choice General Klopper and staff could do nothing but watch the German Panzers (tanks) race past their headquarters on their way to capture the fuel dumps in the harbour.

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South African troops in disarray as Tobruk capitulates

Some British and South African troops managed to break out and make their way back to Allied lines, whilst most stayed and fought a lost cause as grimly and with as much determination as they could. By dawn on 21 June 1942, Tobruk was just a pile of ruins with a massive pall of smoke reaching up into the atmosphere.  The harbour riddled with the wrecks of destroyed ships.  General Klopper gave his compass and staff car to 7 young South African soldiers determined to escape, saying, ”I wish I was coming with you.”

Surrender and shame

Shortly afterwards a small party of officers set off in a truck with a little white flag of surrender fluttering over the hood to negotiate terms of surrender, and by 09h40 Tobruk was officially turned over to Rommel. Soon after, a large white flag was hoisted over the South African Head Quarters by South African Native Military Corps drivers.

And that was it. Major-General KIopper formally surrendered with 32,000 men, including 10,722 South Africans of the 2nd Infantry Division, of whom 1,200 were members of the Native Military Corps, and all the British and Commonwealth units under his command.  Of the two South African Infantry Divisions in the North African combat zone of operations, one entire division (literally half of the South African Army’s fighting force in North Africa) went into captivity.  This and thousands of tonnes of resources – the Germans captured 2,000 tons of fuel, 5,000 tons of provisions, 2,000 vehicles and large stockpiles of ammunition – the situation now for the Allies in North Africa was a very grim one indeed.

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Erwin Rommel inspects South African POW in Tobruk

Britain’s entire war effort was now compromised and very much in the balance, the fight from here out would be a herculean one.  It was also the single biggest capitulation of South African forces in the country’s history – before or since.  Now you can begin to see Churchill’s point, as to him it seemed more than a ‘defeat’ and more of a ‘disgrace’ – as in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the British armed forces by 1942 found themselves again with their backs against a wall – largely due to the fall of Tobruk – and as a result South Africa was going to get the full blame for it by literally every single Commonwealth country, Allied country and the British themselves.

Captivity

The South African, British and other Commonwealth units forced to march across the desert to an Italian POW camp.  The Italian treatment of South African and British prisoners of war was nothing short of diabolical, prisoners were murdered, punitive measures on food allocations and other atrocities became normative.

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British and South African troops marching into captivity after Tobruk falls.

However an even worse treatment was reserved for Black members of the South African Native Military Corps and the Indian troops in captivity.  German and Italian forces displayed a complete disregard for the rights of the Indian or black POWs as they did not view them as regular troops due to Nazi and Facist doctrine and in-bred racism .

There are however accounts of bravery whilst in captivity, with a number of escape attempts and escapes.  Even that General Klopper himself managed to escape captivity in 1943.

One notable heroic deed in captivity at Tobruk was that of a South African Native Military Corps man – Job Maseko, who created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite taken from bullets and an extremely long fuse to blow up a German freighter ship (F Type) in Tobruk harbour as a retaliation for his treatment as a black man and those of his colleagues by the Italians.  To learn more of his heroic tale please visit this Observation Post link Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero

Rommel’s Success  

After 2 years in British hands Tobruk had fallen in 2 days, Rommel had captured enough supplies to carry him on his drive to invade Egypt. On 22 June 1942, Rommel received a message from the Fuhrer – Adolph Hitler, informing him that at the age 49 he had just been appointed Germany’s youngest Field Marshal.

Rommel celebrated that night with canned pineapple and a small glass of whisky, but after dinner he wrote his wife, ”Hitler has made me a Field Marshal. I would much rather he had given me one more division.

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Rommel surveying Tobruk after he captures it

But true to character, by the very next day he was on the advance again.  His order: ”Soldiers of the Panzer Army Africa! Now we must utterly destroy the enemy! During the coming days I shall be making great demands upon you once more, so that we may reach our goal.” The Nile.

Rommel would never get to the Nile and take Egypt.  For Winston Churchill the German advance in North Africa was the desperately needed ‘second front’ which would see the end of Nazi Germany, for the Germans however the North African campaign was nothing more than a side-show in support of Italian imperialism in Africa.  The bulk of their military effort was focussed on the invasion of Soviet Russia. Hitler discontinued the attack on Malta and refused to send Rommel adequate supplies, these actions would make defeat in the North African desert for Germany and Italy inevitable.

Consequences for the British and South Africans

Ironically there was an upside to the Fall of Tobruk, The defeat did have some positives.  It forced Churchill and the British to fundamentally re-appraise the Command and strategy in North Africa.  It led to a shake up of Command which would see General Bernard Montgomery take over overall Command of the British 8th Army (after Churchill’s original replacement, General William Gott was killed in action). Under ‘Monty’ the entire operation received a boost in resources, purpose and training (including much-needed American armour).  Monty and the 8th Army would then go on to victory at El Alamein and more successive victories for the British and Commonwealth forces followed (eventually with American assistance when they entered the war), and it would see the entire German Afrika Corps pushed back completely from North Africa and into captivity.  The issue of Tobruk and Britain ‘against the wall’ gradually became a distant memory.

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Lieutenant General B L Montgomery, General Officer Commanding Eighth Army, watches the beginning of the German retreat from El Alamein from the turret of his Grant Tank. He is wearing his famous tank beret.

The remaining South African forces in North Africa i.e, The 1st South African Infantry Division would go on to recover their reputation somewhat in these strings of success under Montgomery, also starting with Battle of El Alamein.  However Tobruk continued to haunt them and the British still remained dubious of South Africa’s military prowess by the time the next phase i.e. the Italian campaign came around.

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa, the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British 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.

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 – and ultimately recovered the country’s pride.

General Klopper’s career post Tobruk

The fall of Tobruk came as a shattering blow to the British public and British morale. General Klopper came in for most of the criticism, but was he entirely to blame?  The inquest into the Fall of Tobruk found fundamental short-falls in overall British Command and the decision to invest in Tobruk and concluded that General Klopper was placed in an extremely difficult position at Tobruk from which he had little hope of a proper defence – the circumstances he had faced were very different to those the Australians had faced before.  In conclusion to the inquest General Klopper was exonerated for the loss of Tobruk.

General Klopper however did come into a hail of controversy as to his command ability and experience subsequently to the inquest, and had South Africa remained a British Dominion after the war it would have been doubtful that his career would have advanced.

Luckily for General Klopper, the Afrikaner Nationalist government came into power in 1948, and he found more favour with them, when he was very controversially promoted to serve on the Army Chief of Staff from 1951 to 1953, after that a stellar career ensued as he was promoted to Inspector-General from 1953 to 1956, and as finally he took the most honoured position in the South African Defence force as Commandant-General, which is the head of the South African Defence Force, and he held this post from 1956 to 1958.

In conclusion

To answer the question of whether Churchill’s comment that South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk was the difference between ‘defeat’ and ‘disgrace’ it can honestly be said that Churchill’s comment is somewhat unfair, however given the circumstances and the timing it is understandable that he was enraged, the consequences were very bleak for the British War effort.

But Churchill was equally vicious in his remarks as to his own forces when the British garrison at Singapore capitulated due to poor command earlier in February 1942 with an equal consequence in the Asian Pacific field of operations.  On Singapore’s fall Churchill asserted that the British commander General Percival’s decision to surrender was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

So we have to take Churchill and his comments in context of the man, his politics and the circumstances he found himself in. Also, in the end it is Churchill himself who plays a role in recovering South Africa’s pride by insisting the 6th Armoured Division take part in the  Italy campaign – even placing British Household Division Guards under South African 6th Armoured Division command as their Infantry support.  In the greater scheme of things South Africans can hold their heads very high in the role they played ridding the world of Nazism in what Smuts would call ‘the Great War for Liberty and man’s Freedom’ – Churchill’s need to alliterate one of his quotes aside.

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Researched by Peter Dickens.  References – Wikipedia, Extracts and references from. THE GREATEST MILITARY REVERSALOF SOUTH AFRICAN ARMS: THE FALL OFTOBRUK 1942, AN AVOIDABLE BLUNDER OR ANINEVITABLE DISASTER? by David Katz. Extracts from Military History Journal Vol 7 No 6 – December 1988 TOBRUK – 1942 Compiled and translated from the official War Diary of the German Supreme Command by Jochen OEO Mahncke.  Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum. Narratives from North Africa: South African Prisoner of War experience following the fall of Tobruk, June 1942 by Karen Horn.

“We fought as one, black and white”; the South African Native Military Corps ‘at arms’

Now what is truly remarkable about this photograph?  Well it shows a bunch of armed South African soldiers during World War 2 who by all accounts never carried a firearm and by directive were not allowed to either.  These are members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), and it’s proof positive that there is no such thing as skin colour or ‘Segregation’ legislation when under fire.

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This photograph was taken by Warren Loader’s Grandfather Noel Edgar Fuller while serving with The Royal Durban Light Infantry (DLI) B Coy in North Africa during WW2. What makes this photo remarkable is the DLI L/Cpl is standing next to three armed members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC).

So, visual proof that .303 Lee Enfields were issued to some members of the NMC, but what is the validity of this rare photograph?

Official Policy

163497_146794905490250_702739084_nDuring the Second World War the South African government of the day held out that members of the NMC could only function in non-combatant roles, and were not allowed to carry firearms whereas funnily members of the Cape Corps (Cape Coloured members) where fully armed and enrolled in combatant roles.  In terms of the race politics of the day, on the arming of Black soldiers at the beginning of war, Smuts’ government had to bow to the pressures of his opposition, the Nationalists, led by DF Malan.

The Nationalists were vociferously opposed to black South Africans in the army at all, even unarmed. As Dr D.F. Malan was to be quoted in Parliament: “To every Afrikaner, the use of black troops against Europeans is abhorrent.”

Faced with all this opposition in Parliament from the official opposition bench Smuts had little choice, he needed men to fight, and had to tap South Africa’s black population for resources.  So he found a way by striking compromise, they could carry traditional weapons in the form of spears and knobkerries.

The president of the ANC in the war years, Dr AB Xuma, responded: “They are expected to fight aeroplanes, tanks and enemy artillery with knobkerries and assegais. What mockery.”

Arming the Native Military Corps with Spears 

So, in a counter-intuitive move to the National Party’s objections and statements to the Smuts government, the Native Military Corps were trained in traditional weapons (other than firearms) which they were allowed to carry.  This was a long spear, and bear in mind spears are very deadly (as the British fighting at the Battle of Isaldwana found out) – but lets face it, spears were very out of date in the context of modern war, but they pressed on and in training the South African Native military corps even trained to charge with the spear, even through tear-gas screens.

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South African Native Military Corps members charging with traditional spears into a teargas screen

Secretly arming the some Native Military Corps members with Firearms 

All this political segregation and racial discrimination became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances serving Regiments, Units and Sections of the South African Army quite quickly issued firearms to their NMC ‘support’ members – and this photo of DLI members stands testament of such practice.

Thier lives – Black or White, depended on it, and logic prevailed.  As is often the case in combat, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – in combat there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

The caption written on Noel Edgar Fuller’s photo is “our Lance Corporal and his two native pals”. Quite a lot can be seen and said to this remarkable snapshot into the attitude of the time versus the attitude of soldiers.

Job Maseko MM

Job-Maseko

Job Maseko MM

In addition to snapshots like Noel’s one, there are actual accounts of South African Native Military Corps getting into the fight at the Fall of Tobruk, and it produced one highly decorated South African from the SA NMC.

During the Fall of Tobruk, over 1200 NMC members found themselves in a frontal attack by Rommel and his Axis forces.  Many of them were quickly issued rifles and ammunition and got into the fight alongside their white compatriots. Job Maseko was one and he ferried ammunition to the other NMC members who had been issued rifles and were in the thick of the fighting.

After the Fall of Tobruk (South Africa’s greatest capitulation of arms, Job found himself and other NMC members taken prisoner of war.  Made of stern stuff, whilst been put to work by the Germans on the Tobruk dock loading and off-loading Axis suppliers, Job secretly created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite taken from bullets and an extremely long fuse.  His intention, sink a ship!

Job placed his home-made bomb deep inside the bowels of a German freight ship (and “F” Boat) that was docked in the harbour at Tobruk.   He skilfully placed it next to fuel barrels for maximum effect, lit the fuse and made good his escape.  Had he been caught, as a Black POW,  he would have certainly been put to death if not tortured first.

Job waited and later the ship shuddered from a huge internal explosion and sank almost immediately into the harbour.

He later escaped from Tobruk and walked, for three long weeks though the desert and through enemy lines, all the way to El Alamein, he intended joining the battle there as he had fixed an old German radio he had found which informed him about General Montgomery’s epic and tide turning battle at El Alamein.  We still await the full historical account of this remarkable man as very little is known to this day, rest assured historians are now writing it.

Sergeant Petrus Dlamini

Now consider this remarkable first hand account of armed Native Military Corps soldiers in the thick of the fight at El-Alamein

The Germans ran away. Now we were having short magazine guns, we pushed them. They said we went 300 miles … (we were in the) 8th Army led by (British Field-Marshal Bernard). Montgomery. Those Germans never came back. We fought as one; black and white soldiers.” — Sergeant Petrus Dlamini speaking about the battle of El Alamein to filmmaker Vincent Moloi

After 1948 this history was held back from the ‘White’ population and to a very large degree from the ‘Black’ population for political expediency ,it is only been recounted now with the very few remaining NMC members.  In effect South Africans were denied the opportunity to know their own history.

All that is starting to change now. From their recollections we know that, although black soldiers left South Africa armed only with spears, when they got “Up North” (to the North and East African campaigns) many were armed with rifles.  We also know now some even fought alongside white soldiers in the thick of battle.

Sergeant Petrus Dlamini spoke of being at Sidi Rezegh, Mersa Matru, Tripoli, Garowe in then Abyssinia and El Alamein before he went by boat to Italy with the South African 1st Division. He remembered doing guard duty in North Africa.

He says: “There, at Garowe, we were guarding as a sentry. We were guarding with assegai.” But just a few months later, Dlamini adds: “It was said — I heard a rumour — that the superiors [commanding officers] of South Africa, England and Australia said we must be given guns. Those guns were taken from the Italians in Kenya. They gave them to us and we were taught how to put ammunition and we were training with guns”.

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Short Magazine .303 Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk 1, standard issue

“Then we went to El Alamein and they took these [Italian] guns that were not right and they gave us short magazine Lee-Enfield .303. We got them at El Alamein.”  The Lee-Enfield .303 short magazine was the standard rifle issued to all British and Commonwealth troops.

This has been verified in an article in the South African Historical Journal by historian LWF Grundling, who says: “Recruits received rifle musketry training, which was seriously handicapped by the defective Italian rifles with which they were issued.”

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General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld

According to this research it was General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld himself who instructed the commanding officers in North Africa to arm black soldiers with Lee-Enfield rifles before El Alamein.  No small player, General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was the Chief of General Staff (which today is known as Chief of the South African National Defence Force) and led the South African war effort in the Second World War.

But this does not seem to have been mentioned in despatches (possibly because of the petty race political ramifications back in South Africa of the Nationalists).

Sergeant Dlamini said: “In the front line we were accompanied by whites. When we go to fight the Germans we were mixed.”

He spoke vividly of the battles he was in. Moloi recorded his description of the battle of El Alamein.

“It was like bees, those German planes together with our planes, the Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force. Many died there. Shots were like falling rain. They would hit here and here where you are sitting. When you are sleeping in your trench you would hear sounds of bombs all the time, when you wake up you would see those injured and those who are dead.”

Dlamini says they were with the 8th Army. as they pushed the Afrika Korps and Axis forces out of Africa, he goes on “It [the 8th Army] pushed. Ai! Man! It was terrible, soldiers were lying dead, black and white, but the Germans were retreating and we kept following them. The Germans ran away. Now we were having short magazine guns. We pushed them. They said we went 300 miles … 8th Army led by Montgomery. Those Germans never came back. They went down together with the Italians you see.”

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Rare original colour photograph of a NMC Field Kitchen in North Africa campaign, note the high degree of integration of the South African soldiers represented.

Dlamini added: “We were one. We fought as one; black and white soldiers. Here in South Africa (before we went up north) we were treated differently. Blacks were sleeping this side, whites on the other side. When we arrived in Egypt we mixed. If we made a queue, in front would be a white person, behind would be a black person then a white person. We were one.”

And, perhaps explaining why he had not spoken of his experiences before, he added: “You know the heart of a soldier. Your feelings die. You are always angry.”

Besides Moloi’s interviews with Dlamini, and with several other black World War II veterans, almost no records of the wartime experiences of black soldiers exist. And as it’s probably too late now to collect more, Moloi’s transcribed and translated interviews are a national treasure.

Lucas Majozi DCM

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Lucas Majozi DCM

Adding to Job Maseko’s gallantry, another NMC man was to attain hero status during the Second World War was Lucas Majozi, a man who performed a feat very similar to Pvt. Desmond Doss (who has a movie ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ made over his gallantry and US ‘medal of honour’), and like Doss, as an unarmed medic Lucas time and again exposed himself and walked into the hell of machine gun fire as an unarmed medic to rescue a large number of critically injured ‘white’ South African soldiers on the battlefield during the Battle of El Alamein, so much so he became riddled with bullets himself and eventually collapsed.

This is South Africa’s own ‘hacksaw ridge’ and movies should be made of it, Lucas Majozi should be elevated to the highest accolades of gallantry we have to offer today.  He remains the NMC with the highest decoration to this day – the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Politically inconvenient ‘Sacrifice’

600x951It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published, lest national heroes be made of these ‘Black’ men.  Simply put the ‘Black’ contributions to World War 1 and World War 2 were quite literally erased from the narrative of the war after 1948 and dismissed by the incoming Apartheid government as ‘traitors’ (a tag also suffered by their ‘White’ counterparts) for serving the ‘British’.

Bear in mind when reviewing what this actually means to the prevailing opinions by many South Africans of the war (White and Black)  – approximately 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”.  In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.  Mull that over for a minute.

The sacrifice of the men of the Native Military Corps no less significant – if you think that as ‘non combatants’ this corps came through unscathed by war, also think again – this is the honour role of those NMC members who laid down their lives during the war, their sacrifice is literally quite eye-opening:

In total approximately 1655 Native Military Corps members died during World War 2, read that again – One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Five ‘Black’ South African soldiers died during World War 2.  That’s almost three times the number who died on the SS Mendi during World War 1, and that’s only from one ‘Corps’.

Put into context, nearly as many South Africans died during the entire 23 years of fighting during the Border War in the 70’s and 80’s when approximately 2013 South African service personnel died – from all arms of the military …. yet, here we are talking about only ‘one’ single Corps of Black South Africans and only five years of conflict.  Consider that the book shelves on South African history are stuffed full of books on the Border War and not one single book is dedicated to the history of the South African Native Military Corps in World War 2.  There is also almost nothing by way of definitive work on the unit history on the internet.

In Conclusion

It must be noted that this policy of arming NMC was not a universal one and only seemed to have been actioned with certain members in front line units or when combat situations demanded it, in reality reason finally prevailed.

It also seems that once high intensity combat operations abated these rifles were handed back. For the most part many NMC members went through the war in non-combatant roles and unarmed in roles like supply truck drivers, medics, chefs, bomb loaders, engineering labour (rail and bridge-building) etc.

It is unfortunate that after the war, and when the Nationalists ascended to power in 1948, that the NMC was disbanded and history scrubbed.  They were excluded from national parades and would sit under a tree and tell their stories to anyone prepared to listen.  Their stories really becoming fable in the Black community only, any record of NMC using weapons was generally written out the state’s historical narrative, interviews with them disregarded and these priceless historical nuggets are only starting to re-surface now in a post Apartheid epoch.

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NMC Insignia

The history of the South African Native Military Corps needs to resurface – it’s screaming out for more definitive works and information access – this featured photograph alone calls for it.  We need to fundamentally rethink who and what has been sacrificed to military conflict by South Africans of all ethnic origins, we need to completely re-dress how we honour them and we need to take some serious perspective.

Related Work and Links:

Native Military Corps Dress and Bearing: Dress and Bearing of the South African Native Military Corps

Job Maseko; Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero.

Lucas Majozi; “With bullets in his body he returned … into a veritable hell of machine gun fire”; Lucas Majozi DCM

Skin colour in combat;  Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!

Native Military Corps honour roll;  NMC Honour Roll, Delville Wood official website


Written by Peter Dickens.  Image copyright of NMC members holding weapons to Warren Loader, used with his kind permission.  Paintings of Job Maseko and Lucas Majozi by Neville Lewis copyright.  Quotes obtained from ‘Memories of black South African soldiers who bore arms and fought in War II’ by Marilyn Honikman

Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero

Job Maseko is a very notable South African hero of the Second World War.  He was a member of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC) and was decorated with the Military Medal for gallantry.  So how is it that a NMC member, a corps not allowed to officially carry firearms, gets to into the fight and wins this decoration.  Simply put he single-handedly blew up an enemy ship.  Read on for the story of a very remarkable man.

Job-MasekoJob Maseko was employed as a delivery man in Springs before he volunteered for service in the Second World War and joined the South African Native Military Corps (NMC). After completion of basic training, he was sent to North Africa, attached to the 2nd South African Infantry Division.  Members of the NMC took up any support role in the Division which did not require the handling of a firearm.  They were given a vast range of different roles – anything from drivers, military cooks, engineers, stretcher bearers to bomb loaders.  South African race laws at the time provided that serving ‘black’ men could not carry firearms, they were however issued spears as a ‘traditional weapon’ for guard and ceremonial duty, but that was about it (see related Observation Post Dress and Bearing of the South African Native Military Corps).

269A86C0B4724B0689CF66931FBE0163128 000 ‘Black’ South African soldiers volunteered to take part in World War 2 (nearly 40% of the standing army) and members of the NMC often found themselves in perilous circumstances and were exposed to the rigours and dangers of war as much as any another soldier.  Some of these restrictions on the use of weapons quickly went out the window when in a combat zone, and somewhere along the line Job Maseko also learned a bomb making skill (see related Observation Post  ‘Armed’ SA Native Military Corps in WW2 – this Corps screams out for a definitive work!).

The fall of Tobruk

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General Klopper

In 1941 the Australians had held Tobruk for 9 months, until Rommel’s withdrawal of his Axis forces to the west.  Tobruk secured, by 1942 the Allied Middle East Command decided to leave a smaller ‘temporary’ force to hold Tobruk while a new strike force was built up near the frontier.  The task of defending Tobruk was left to the South Africans. The new  garrison was to be formed by the 2nd South African Infantry Division with General Klopper, a farmer from the Orange Free State before the war, and a major general of only one month’s standing, given command of Tobruk.  In addition, units of British and Indian detachments fell under South Arican command defending Tobruk.  Into this deployment also fell our hero – Job Maseko.

It is generally understood that by this stage Tobruk’s defences were in a poor shape with much of the armour and artillery taken away to the new frontier, the Western and Southern sides of the port were well defended by the South Africans, but the East side was weak, and it proved to be fatal.

As usual, Rommel had devised a ruse for capturing Tobruk. Only his infantry approached the western perimeter, while his mobile forces swept on past, to give the impression that the German and Italian armour was heading straight for the Egyptian border (sending radio messages to that effect to complete the ruse).  He then swung his mobile armoured forces around and attacked Tobruk from its weak point – the eastern perimeter.

Rommel’s zero hour was 05h20 on 20 June 1942. As dawn broke long black lines of tanks, trucks and infantry slowly started to move forward. As it grew louder and closer to Tobruk waves of German Stukas and Ju 88’s aircraft appeared overhead (Rommel pressed every single Axis airplane in service in North Africa into taking Tobruk).

As the heavy artillery began to fire, the planes released their bombs and quickly got out of the way for the next wave, operating a shuttle service between the defence perimeter and El Adem airfield, 10 miles away. They pounded a gap open 600 yards wide. Behind them, under cover of artillery barrage and half-hidden by smoke and dust, German and Italian sappers raced forward to lift mines and bridge the tank traps with tanks and infantry racing through the gaps. As they move forward, they lit green, red and purple flares and the Stukas dropped their bombs just ahead of the advancing, multi-coloured smoke screen while the other planes and artillery blasted the South African rear (the seaward side of the port) with shells and bombs.

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Rommel and German armour entering Tobruk

Into this desperate fight for survival went everyone, including members of The Native Military Corps. Job Maseko worked as a stretcher bearer, doing profoundly dangerous work, rescuing wounded men, as the defence of  Tobruk became more desperate, Job and other black colleagues were given rifles and expected to fight on the front line with everyone else.

Inside Tobruk the situation was chaotic. General Klopper – his HQ’s bombed out, his radio and telephone wrecked and his code booked destroyed, lost the last vestige of control.  Tobruk fell by the evening. Job Maseko became a prisoner of war (POW) on 21 June 1942 when Major-General  KIopper, surrendered to Rommel at Tobruk with 32000 men, including 10,722 South Africans of the 2nd Infantry Division, of whom 1,200 were members of the Native Military Corps.  It was the single biggest capitulation of South African forces in the country’s history – before or since.

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Erwin Rommel inspecting South African POW after Tobruk falls

Job and many others were forced to march across the desert to an Italian POW camp.  The Italian treatment of South African prisoners of war was nothing short of diabolical, however an even worse treatment was reserved for Black members of the South African Native Military Corps in captivity.  German and Italian forces displayed a complete disregard for the rights of coloured or black POWs as they did not view them as regular troops.

One account recalls how black soldiers were shot by drunk German guards while been marched to the POW camp, and the account goes further to say that in Tobruk camp, black South African POWs were forced “under threat of death” to do war work, which was contrary to the Geneva Convention.

Another report claims Indian and Black prisoners at Tobruk were not allowed to take cover whenever the Allied bombers later bombed the port, furthermore their food was totally inadequate – they were only given one packet of biscuits per day and water rations were kept to a minimum.

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Allied POW at Tobruk

There were also examples of Black South African POW escaping from the camp perimeter with their white counterparts to scrounge for food in the town, and Job Maseko was one.  The Black POWs, as they were put to war work in the harbour (something most their white counterparts were excluded from) – mainly offloading ships.  Desperate for food they would sometimes return to the camp with ‘acquired’ sacks of corn meal (mieliemeal), one account from De Lisle recalls that the unfortunate consequence was that hungry English and  South Africans white POW would lay siege to their tents (the Black POW) at night to beg for their food.

The diabolical treatment of Black POW forced Job Maseko to taken action against his captors, to quote him “because of our ill-treatment by the enemy, especially the Italians, and because I felt it a duty in this way to assist my own people”.

73349_185692058267201_843696134_nAs with his Biblical namesake, Job was made of tough stuff and with the help of some comrades whilst on mundane prisoner duties to go down to the docks, Job created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite taken from bullets and an extremely long fuse.

Job placed his home-made bomb deep inside the bowels of a German freight ship (and “F” Boat) that was docked in the harbour at Tobruk.   He skilfully placed it next to fuel barrels for maximum effect, lit the fuse and made good his escape.  Had he been caught, as a Black POW,  he would have certainly been put to death if not tortured first.

Job waited and later the ship shuddered from a huge internal explosion and sank almost immediately into the harbour.  After the war Job Maseko was able to point out the exact place where the ship was berthed and sure enough divers found it on the sea bed.

He later escaped from Tobruk and walked, for three long weeks though the desert and through enemy lines, all the way to El Alamein, he intended joining the battle there as he had fixed an old German radio he had found which informed him about General Montgomery’s epic and tide turning battle at El Alamein.  We still await the full historical account of this remarkable man as very little is known to this day, rest assured historians are now writing it.

For his actions, Job Maseko was later presented with the Military Medal (MM) by Major-General F H Theron. The following extract enshrines his heroism, bear in mind when reading this, it is made even more remarkable in that Job Maseko as a ‘black’ African could only be deployed in a non combat role:

The King has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in the Middle East:-

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No N 4448 L/Cpl Job Masego [sic) – Native Military Corps

Citation
For meritorious and courageous action in that on or about the 21st July, while a Prisoner of War, he, Job Masego, sank a fully laden enemy steamer – probably an “F” boat – while moored in Tobruk Harbour.

This he did by placing a small tin filled with gunpowder in among drums of petrol in the hold, leading a fuse therefrom to the hatch and lighting the fuse upon closing the hatch.

In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Masego displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.’

The Victoria Cross Controversy 

For his actions Job Maseko was initially recommended for a Victoria Cross but according to Neville Lewis, the first official war artist for South Africa during the Second World War, Job Maseko was awarded the Military Medal instead as he was ‘only an African’.  It is hoped that actions currently been taken by the SANDF Military Attache in the United Kingdom to redress this issue with British government and re-open his case so it will be met with a correct interpretation of Job Maseko’s actions without the ‘race’ factor as part of the deliberation, and his actions considered as one worthy of the Victoria Cross or not (as may be the case).

Later in Life

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Black ex-South African POW in Tripoli awaiting repatriation after the war

After been released Lance Corporal Job Maseko returned to South Africa.  “Apartheid” was to be implemented a few short years after the war ended in 1948 when the Nationalists came to power beating Smuts.  Job Maseko’s legacy slipped away from the general consciousness – along with many deeds of South African servicemen in World War 2, black and white.  He became a poor man and died in 1952 when he was accidentally hit by a train.  He was so broke at the time he was buried with borrowed money in the Payneville Township Cemetery in Springs.  A very sad way to see the end of a national hero.

Today, to honour this unassuming hero, the community of KwaThema near Springs has a primary school in the township named after him. The main road linking the town of Springs to KwaThema Township has also been named after him.  He is honoured at both the Delville Wood museum in France and the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, A South African fighting ship the SAS Kobie Coetzee has also now been renamed the SAS Job Maseko in recognition of this very brave South African.

He can truly take the mantle of a proper South African warrior and stands shoulder to shoulder with all the other great South Africans who have earned the highest accolades of gallantry.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens, References wikipedia, The incredible true tale of Job Maseko – the man who sunk a ship whilst a prisoner by Stephen Liddell. Narratives from North Africa: South African Prisoner of War experience following the fall of Tobruk, June 1942 by Karen Horn. Artwork credits: .  Job Maskeko official portrait by Neville Lewis. Job Maseko holding explosive by Tim Johnson, copyright Tim Johnson website: http://www.timjohn.co.za

 

“With bullets in his body he returned … into a veritable hell of machine gun fire”; Lucas Majozi DCM

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Lucas Majozi DCM

A very notable South African hero. The highest decoration awarded to a Black South African soldier during the Second World War was the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) awarded to Lucas Majozi (1916-1969).  Read on for the story of one of South Africa’s bravest.

Lucas Majozi volunteered to fight in the 2nd World War, however as he was a black man, race politics in South Africa dictated that he could only join the Native Military Corps (NMC) in a non-combat role, which meant he and all other South African ‘Bantu’ fighting in World War 2 could not carry a firearm – unlike the Cape Coloured Corps, which could carry firearms and take a combat role.  This did not however keep the Native Military Corps away from the perils of fighting and NMC were often fight right in the middle of the fighting.  To read up a little more of this, see Observation Post ‘Armed’ SA Native Military Corps in WW2 – this Corps screams out for a definitive work! .

So how does an unarmed NMC soldier get to win one of the highest accolades for bravery in World War 2?

The answer lies in Lucas Majozi’s personality and character, he was a proper South African warrior and although he would be unarmed he volunteered to become a medic working as a stretcher bearer in the thick of fighting to bring wounded men back from harm to aid stations, an extremely dangerous job.  Like another Native Military Corps hero – Job Maseko, Lucas Majozi by his actions was also to become one of South Africa’s fighting legends.  To read more on Job Maseko and his remarkable bravery read this Observation. Post: Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero

So lets have a look at Lucas Majozi, his account is a truly inspirational one, a very remarkable act of bravery and courage.

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Bardia, taken earlier 31st December 1941, black stretcher-bearers in action under fire (photo : R.Masters from The Kaffrarian Rifles of FL Coleman).

The end of the beginning 

The DCM was the second highest British award for gallantry after the Victoria Cross. It was awarded to Lucas Majozi for the great bravery that he displayed during the game-changing 2nd battle of El Alamein which commenced on 23 October 1942 when the British 8th Army under command of General Bernard Montgomery attacked the German/Italian forces under command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

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.

Operation Lightfoot

The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role. 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.

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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. Imperial War Museum Copyright

The 1st Infantry Division (South Africa), under the overall command of General Dan Pienaar was tasked 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.

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.

Our hero – Lucas Majozi was deployed with Brig. Poole in the 2nd SA Infantry Brigade to attack the South West, and he was in support of the 1st and 2nd Field Force Battalions (FFB) which were basically South African Infantry Corps battalions.

Crumbling Actions

Operation Lightfoot started at 2140 on 23 October with a five-hour 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.  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 rate of attrition was on a World War 1 scale dubbed ‘crumbling actions’ by General Montgomery who chose this tactic). 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 1000 New Zealanders).

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El Alamein 1942: Wounded British soldiers wait on stretchers for attention at an Advanced Dressing Station. A Royal Army Medical Corps officer gives a drink to one of the wounded (Imperial War Museum Copyright)

Into all these  ‘crumbling actions,’ of high rates of attrition and loads of casualties comes Lucas Majozi and his remarkable tale of individual bravery.

Pinned down in the Axis minefield 

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 NMC non-combatant medics rescuing their White combatant counterparts was Lucas Majozi (see related article Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!).  His citation says everything about his actions:

The DCM for Lucas Majozi

Citation given to Lucas Majozi, NMC, for the Distinguished Conduct Medal is given below: No N 17525 Cpl Lucas Majozi, NMC, a Zulu from Zastron, Orange Free State att. FFB – Distinguished Conduct Medal.

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Lucas Majozi

‘On the night of October 23-24, Majozi accompanied his company into action as a stretcher-bearer. In the later stages of the action when he was within 100 yards of the enemy and under heavy fire, he thought nothing of his personal safety and continued to evacuate casualties assisted by co-bearers.

He was then wounded by shrapnel, but he continued evacuating the wounded. Told by a medical corporal to go back to the regimental aid post, he replied that there were many wounded men still in the minefield.

He went back, and with the assistance of other stretcher-bearers, he brought back more wounded. After his co-bearer had become a casualty, he did not waver, but carried wounded men back alone on his back to the aid post.

When he was eventually told by the Company Commander to go back, he smilingly refused and remained on duty, working incessantly till he collapsed next morning through sheer exhaustion, stiffness, and loss of blood. His extreme devotion to duty and gallant conduct under continuous enemy fire throughout the night saved the lives of many wounded men who would otherwise have died through loss of blood or possible further wounds.’

Here is a copy of the original signal:

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Aftermath 

The British and Commonwealth forces, including the South Africans were able to break out of their initial objectives by the 2nd of November 1942 and the Axis forces were turned in retreat, a retreat from which they never recovered.

To get a full appraisal of the South African actions at El Alamein, follow this link “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein

Praise 

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General Dan Pienaar

At a parade in Egypt after the battle of El Alamein, the commander of the 1st South African Division, Major-General Daniel Hermanus Pienaar (popularly known as Dan Pienaar) said of Lucas Majozi:

‘This soldier did most magnificent and brave things. With a number of bullets in his body he returned time after time into a veritable hell of machine gun fire to pull out wounded men. He is a man of whom South Africa can well be proud. He is a credit to his country.’

Post War

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Lucas Majozi DCM ‘Official Portrait’

After the war, Majozi returned to the town of his birth, Zastron. In 1948 he joined the South African Police (SAP), attaining the rank of sergeant.  Like all returning South Africa World War 2 heroes (white and black) his legacy and great deed was to be sidelined by the incoming Nationalist government in 1948 and his story lost to many future generations – even today.

In particular the two Black NMC men – Majozi and Maseko who received bravery decorations were somewhat downplayed over the Apartheid years by the Nationalist government and not honoured as national heroes.

Lucas Majozi died in 1969.  The South African National Museum of Military History is in possession of both this portrait by the famous artist, Neville Lewis and his medal group.  His legacy today is marked by a display at the Delville Wood Museum in France, the SA National History Museum in Saxonwald, a street in Zastron is also named after him.  The MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) Shellhole (clubhouse) for military veterans in Riebeek Kasteel (Western Cape) is also called the Majozi Shellhole in his honour.

Many say he should have received the Victoria Cross (the highest award for gallantry) but did not because he was a black man and due to race politics was not recommended for one – in either event his case should be reviewed by the British issuing authority with the perseverance of the South African National Defence Force attache in London.

He remains a true South African warrior and hero deserving of more of our praise and recognition.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Photographic references Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia. Lucas Majozi DCM official portrait by Neville Lewis – accredited state artist.